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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Did Whitney Get It All Wrong?

“I believe the children are our future…” So begins one of Whitney Houston’s biggest hits of the 1980’s.  It was a song my paternal grandmother liked to hear my younger sister and I belt at the top of our lungs on the car ride from our mother’s home to hers every other Friday afternoon.  We weren’t especially good singers back then (still aren’t today) but we sang with enthusiasm and that was all Mamaw required.
As kids we’re fed a whole lot of ego inflating rabble about being “the future” of all humanity, the hope of tomorrow and such.  It’s unfortunate that by the time we’re old enough to realize that the sun doesn’t shine from our every orifice, we’ve often let slip away our future’s true greatest asset:  the stories, experiences and expertise of our elderly.
My grandmother, who loved to hear my sister and I lay waste to 80’s pop tunes with such gusto, died last week.  What I’ve come to realize that I will miss most about her are her stories.
I found a video last night of an interview my oldest son did with Mamaw a few years ago about her experiences during WWII.  He asked about 20 or so questions, each one answered in thoughtful detail by my grandmother, but not before she got sidetracked in the way she always did when inevitably one question reminded her of one thing and then another that she had a little something to say about as well.
It was a joy to watch that video, but it also made me a little sad.  I’d always intended to video more of the talks I had with my grandmother, but I’ll never have that chance.  I have over an hour of video featuring Mamaw talking about life in the U.S. during the 1940’s, but I’ll never again hear from her perspective about the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, or less epic tales of American history such as life in Small Town, Ohio or rural Alabama.
I recently participated in an exercise for one of my college courses that centered around a mock apocalyptic event.  My classmates and I were given a scenario that there had been a catastrophic event.  Shelter space and supplies for survivors were limited and we had to decide with whom to share them.  We were to choose from a group that included a doctor, lawyer, small child, drug addicted couple in their late 20’s and an 80 year-old woman.  I was surprised when I was among the very few to choose the elderly woman.
My rationing was this:  who are we without a sense of our past?  I wanted someone with some real life experience in my camp of survivors.  The little old lady hadn’t gotten to be a little old lady without seeing and experiencing quite a few things.  She and the doctor were the most valuable survivors in my mind.
We undervalue the elderly in our society.  We take them for granted in a variety of ways.  I know that I certainly took for granted that there would always be another afternoon to talk to my grandmother about the many adventures she experienced during her lifetime.  Every older person you know has a wealth of stories inside them.  I encourage each of you to take the time to coax those stories out of them.  Chances are, if they’re like Mamaw, they won’t need much in the way of persuasion.  I also encourage you to record them telling their stories.  The recordings could be of immeasurable comfort to you someday and valuable to the world as a whole when there are no more first-hand accounts of some of the greatest events in World History.
Thanks for the stories, Rosie.  You certainly lived quite a life!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Under the Influence

I spent a couple of weeks in October high on prescription drugs…and NOT by choice, mind you.  I had delusions of catching up on some much needed rest and relaxation (book in hand, natch) during my convalescence from stomach and esophageal surgery, even packed a couple of books to take to the hospital.  What a joke!

I’d never had an overnight stay in the hospital outside of various and sundried child births, and I tricked myself into thinking of it as a mini vacay of sorts.  Boy was I wrong!  24 hours as a human porcupine that somehow swallowed an entire paper towel tube decoupaged with glass shards doesn’t make for an eager reader…or lucid one for that matter.

Little Sister braved the horror known as a “Semi-Private” room with me until we were allowed to make a break for it at 5:30 a.m. the morning after my surgery.  Naturally, I was ever so much more comfortable at home in my own bed.  The following ten days of a liquid diet and more meds left me nearly twenty pounds lighter; but I ask who among you would have the energy or fortitude to hold even a paperback when you’re living on beef broth and liquid Lortab?  It was terrible…even if I was thinner for a few days.

I’m back on the good stuff now:  meats of all varieties and generally anything that will not fit through a straw.  I have been restored to good health and am incredibly grateful. 

In the last couple of weeks I’ve finished Polly Shulman’s The Grimm Legacy about a girl who gets a job at a NYC library that houses objects like Snow White’s stepmother’s mirror, a cloak of invisibility and other magical relics that can be borrowed by patrons.  An adventure ensues when objects from the collection, known as the Grimm Legacy, start to go missing.  I highly recommend the book to young readers and adults alike.  Ms. Shulman actually spent a couple of her teenage years as a Page in a NYC library and lends much expertise to the story.

I’ve also been reading R. Martin’s Introrse for an upcoming author interview.  The book is sophisticated science fiction and it’s taking me some time to get my head around it.  There are aspects of the work...threads of the story…that remind me of Star Wars and I’m enjoying those.  I’ll have more to say on the book and its author in an upcoming post.

I’ve begun The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I ordered the title from Amazon after hearing an interview with the author on NPR.  The book has a gorgeously crafted cover and is just another example of a book I knew I was going to love with one look.  The story follows two star-crossed young magicians that compete in a deadly battle of magic within the setting of a mysterious circus.  Magicians are the new witches, wizards, vampires and werewolves, people.  You heard it here first!

On the writing front:  I’ve joined a local critique group.  There are some really gifted poets, storytellers and writers among them.  I’m really looking forward to working with the group, sharing all that I’ve learned in the last couple of years, and picking up some new techniques and advice.

November is NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month.  Everyone has a story to tell…why not get it down on paper?  For info, please visit www.nanowrimo.com, where you can sign up and track your progress as you complete a novel during the month of November.



Sunday, September 25, 2011

Judging A Book By It's Cover

I’m shallow.  In the words of Charles Barkley and my friend Deborah’s son Carter, this is a “turr-ible” character flaw that I have managed to outgrow in all areas of my life save for two:  the appearance of my children when fully clothed and my selection of reading material.
While I certainly threatened it plenty of times, I stopped short of divorcing either of my husbands for how they allowed my progeny to parade down grocery store isles or the halls of their elementary school dressed like clown school dropouts when outside of my presence.  Just ask the Sweet Potato Queen Jill Conner Browne, and she’ll tell you that such an atrocity is justifiable grounds for divorce among Southern women. 
Yes, I like my kiddos’ socks to match (despite the growing trend of miss-matched socks among tween girls…in vibrant neon animal prints no less) and for them to refrain from sporting clashing prints and patterns above the ankle altogether.  It makes my day for one of my children to stroll into a room and ask, “This okay?” as opposed to running out the door in Lord Knows What.  I get that I’m not doing them any favors.  They probably shouldn’t be standing in front of their closets every morning agonizing over whether or not I’ll approve of their wardrobe choices…wait a minute.  Scratch that.  Yes, they should.  I’m jumping on the WWJD bandwagon with my own line of “WWMW:  What Would Momma Wear?” bracelets.  No more Daisy Duke bootie shorts and pants on the ground, it’s belts and Bermuda shorts all around.
I am beginning to mellow a little in this area.  Number Five has been wearing a multi-colored tutu over her pants everywhere we’ve gone this week without much fuss from me.
Here she is at a soccer game this weekend.
I’m also a sucker for a great book cover.  While on a recent shopping trip to Douglasville, GA for Homecoming attire, I was able to visit a closing Borders bookstore.  There were so many great deals to be had among the items marked down 60-80% that I didn’t know where to start.  I made my way to the Young Adult section and picked two titles based on their cover art alone:  The Grimm Legacy, by Polly Shulman and Rot and Ruin, by Jonathan Maberry.  This made me realize just how often I choose what to read next based on the look of a cover.  Sure, there are a few books I pick up after reading a great review or at the suggestion of someone I follow on Twitter or through a blog, but for the most part it’s a cover that wins me over.
A perfect example of this is the story of how I discovered D. M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo Trilogy.  I found the second book of the series, Lamplighter, while perusing the shelves of a local library.  When the cover’s bold colors and beautiful artistry caught my eye, I read the jacket and knew that I’d found my next great adventure.
Mr. Cornish is the illustrator as well as the author.
On top of being shallow, I’m a tad obsessive/compulsive and had to purchase a copy of Foundling, the first installment of the trilogy, before reading book two.  I fell in love with the story of Rossamund Bookchild and his adventures in the world of the Half-Continent and quickly devoured Foundling and Lamplighter.  I would have to wait almost two long years for the third and final installment Factotum.  In the interim between books two and three, Putnam, Mr. Cornish’s publisher, changed the name of the series for U. S. publication to The Foundling Trilogy.  Supposedly the new title is more palatable to American readers.  They also changed the cover art.  I was disappointed with both.  There’s no way I would have picked up the book in the first place under the new packaging.

The new covers and titles are okay, I suppose.  They just don’t captivate me the way the originals did.  I hadn’t much choice when it came to Factotum.   I was only able to find it under the new name and look.  It still makes me a little sad to see it lined up next to its bolder brothers on my shelf at home. 

It’s similar to the way I feel seeing one of the boys dressed in purple stripes and red checks or Dan in her tattered tutu next to the other kids looking perfectly presentable in their Mom Approved outfits.
So, what about you?  Which books have you chosen based on their covers alone?  Were you ever disappointed by having done so?
For my next post, I’ll be interviewing local author Randy Martin and the illustrator of his book Introrse, Jason Wright.  And I’ll be posing these questions, among others, to them as well.
By the way, that computer science class is paying off!  I finally learned how to include photos in my posts.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From the Mouths of Babes

It’s been a while since my last post.  I have a good excuse, though.  I’ve been back in class at JSU since the fall semester began a week ago.  I’m sitting for two classes and taking two more classes online.
 It’s been a bit of an adjustment, to say the least.  I’m getting up at 5:30 a.m. in order to get the older kids on the bus by 6:30, the baby to daycare by 7 and myself to class by 7:30 Monday thru Friday.  Then it’s off to work until 4, volleyball, football and/or soccer practice, homework (the chirren’s and mine), dinner and, if we’re lucky, showers all around. 
As if my weekdays weren’t enough to make me drop dead from fatigue, I’ve been spending my weekends at volleyball tournaments and peewee football games around the county.  I’ve not had much time to read or write anything for fun in weeks.
I am enjoying being a student again, however.  I was elated on the first day of my first class, Political Science, to discover that I am neither the oldest nor the fattest in the class.  Hooray!  This made it much easier to focus on the subject matter and not worry about my superior life experience and sheer physical mass intimidating my classmates.
Sadly, I wasn’t as lucky in Oral Communications.  This is my own fault—I put this class off while attending in 1996-1997 and 2002.  I was almost late the first day the class met.  I didn’t know it at the time, but so was the professor.  I walked into a room of shiny newborn babes (by some miracle already possessed with the ability to talk) who began to echo the phrase:  “She’s here.  She’s here!”  as soon as I entered the classroom.  This was followed by a collective and disappointed “Oh!”, when I sat down in a desk just like the rest of them.  They thought I was the dang instructor!
I learned during a subsequent meeting that I am the only person with children in my Oral Communications class.  Well, besides the actual instructor, who has one son, but I’m not really even sure she counts, seeing as she only has a singular offspring to contend with.
My online classes offer the luxury of anonymity.  I know from the message boards of my Art Appreciation class that I am certainly not the only dinosaur returning to finish my degree.  Many of my virtual classmates are parents as well.
I’m trying hard not to be so hung-up on the age thing.  I’m working to put it out of my mind altogether during class.  I was doing a pretty good job of it this morning in Poli Sci until a young guy, clad in black jeans and shiny Doc Martin’s almost pushed me over the edge.  It was my first occasion to sit next to him.  He was late for class, probably due to the abysmal rain we’ve been experiencing for three days straight here in Alabama, and took the available seat across from me, where he proceeded to sigh loudly and grunt every time the instructor gave the name of some contributor to American political culture.  Voltaire…sigh.  John Locke…sigh, sigh.  Thomas Jefferson…sigh, grunt, sigh.  He’s obviously got some strong political views and doesn’t think any of those guys got “It” right.  And why shouldn’t he?  He’s 20 years old and knows it all.  I wanted to knock the placenta off his face and him out of his Doc Martin’s with my 20 pound text book.
I’m hoping my return to the halls of higher learning doesn’t land me in an Anger Management class.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's Not Me, It's You

Rejection sucks, plain and simple.  Whether it’s a dating scenario, job interview, audition, or—in the case of a writer—submission, no one likes to be told that they’re just not good enough.
So, what about when it’s true?  Does that soften the blow?  Not really…at least, not at first…but it often results in a product of higher quality in the long run.
I’ve queried—and been rejected by—almost a dozen literary agents or publishers.  Each time that I’ve sent off one of these submissions, I’ve believed my manuscript HEIR TO THE LAMP worthy of publication; and each time that I’ve received a rejection letter in response, I’ve realized, after some stomping and wailing like a three-year-old in Target who’s been refused a $20 toy two weeks before her birthday, that there was validity in the rejection.  Then I’ve revisited my work and commenced polishing and perfecting for the next go-round.
Last week, after receiving my latest rejection—this time from the publisher who’d answered my first query with a “maybe” when their acquisitions editor asked me to re-work the first three chapters—I responded differently.  The answer I’d waited five long months for read:  “Sorry.  Still not hooked.  Good luck with future endeavors.”
Ouch!  It hurt—more than all of the form letters from the others put together.  I was seriously depressed for a couple of days.  In the past, I’d jumped right back into editing, but this time I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, my very desire for publication gone in a whoosh with all the air in my body.
In a bid for sympathy, I texted my cheerleaders:  my younger but-only-by-ten-months-and-twenty-seven-days sister, our aunt GDR, and our mother.
“[The publisher] said no.  I’m a loser!”
Within seconds my phone chirped, alerting me that I’d received a response.  Wiping tears from my eyes and hoping for much needed words of encouragement, I read my sister’s answer:
“Yeah, pretty much.”
It was revenge for a text I’d sent her just two days earlier in response to a picture of the beautiful ivory gown for her upcoming wedding which read: 
 “Lovely…but I thought green was the appropriate color for a bride’s fourth walk down the aisle.  Bwahahahaha!” 
We give each other huge amounts of grief and it’s insanely entertaining.  Her quip was just what I needed to get over the self-pity.  I’m not a loser—I know that.  Mother and GDR sent long texts extolling my virtues, talents and overall awesomeness and my friend and fellow writer Jeremy Hicks was able to help me put things into even better perspective by saying, “Your piece may land in front of an editor who hates first person point-of-view…hates dream sequences…has had a bad day and decides to take it out on your submission.  You can’t let that get to you.”
So, I’m back at it—editing and revising…and dreaming of publication—and my manuscript continues to get better, to shine a little more, every day.  There has been something constructive to each of the rejections I’ve received—even all of those that included the generic “Thank you for your submission, unfortunately your work does not meet our needs at this time”—because they’ve forced me to take a second, third, twenty-fifth look at my manuscript and find room for improvement.
Rejection sucks, but it does make one better—especially if she has a snarky sister.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Interview with Cycle of Ages Saga Co-Author, Jeremy Hicks

I recently sat down with old friend and screenplay author Jeremy Hicks to talk about the various projects he’s working on.  Like me, Jeremy has been an avid reader and fantasy fan since childhood.  He’s also been writing for much of his life—he and I wrote a monthly column called “He Said, She Said” in high school wherein we debated titillating topics ranging from summer reading assignments to Homecoming activities.  Jeremy consistently put up solid arguments, but it’s pretty safe to say that I always won our friendly debates.  I have no doubt that he disagrees whole-heartedly, but this is MY blog so there you go.
Jeremy and his writing partner Barry Hayes finished their first screenplay CYCLE OF AGES SAGA:  FINDERS KEEPERS in April of 2009 and are in the process of trying to sell it to producers in California.  They have also completed work on SANDS OF SORROW, the second installment of the fantasy series, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING REDNECKS, a zombie story co-written with Jeremy’s younger brother Joshua Hicks that they have high hopes for given the market’s current insatiable appetite for brains and all things zombie-fied.  As if those projects alone weren’t enough to keep the duo of Hicks and Hayes chained to their keyboards day and night, they also have a “road trip style comedy” in the works and are looking to bring the CYCLE OF AGES SAGA to market as a comic book series.
I was elated when Jeremy agreed to sit down with me for an interview about his work, the genre of fantasy, the query process and the e-reader medium for my burgeoning little blog.

Michelle:  I realize that to sum up any story in a nutshell rarely does it justice, but can you give the readers an idea what the Cycle of Ages Saga (COAS) is about?
Jeremy Hicks:  The Cycle of Ages Saga is an epic fantasy that mirrors the political and ethnic unrest in our own history, unrest that is very much still with us today.  It is also a lesson in how a government can turn people against virtually anybody to achieve its strategic ends.   At its heart, the main storyline is about how one man’s mission to save his nation and its people and bring peace to a war torn planet becomes the shared goal of his newfound friends and allies, even past the point of his untimely demise.

M:  Anything out there that the lay person can compare COAS to?
JH:  It’s Tolkein-esque in the scale of the size of the conflict—the fate of a Free People is at stake…and it’s similar to Game of Thrones on a political scale, but it is driven by more dynamic, action-oriented characters.  Then there’s the magic aspect…it’s not your Harry Potter brand of magic.  The story is graphic…similar to the old Conan movies.  The casualty rate is high, more like a horror than fantasy film.

M:  Why fantasy?  What drew you to the genre?
JH:  For me it was about the old adage ‘write what you know’.  As a teen I enjoyed role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons…they were a social outlet…and often times another friend and I were counted on for the creativity to keep those games going…to design the worlds and come up with the scenarios that led the games forward.  I’ve always loved the complicated storylines, world building, creatures and mythology of fantasy…as I got older the underlying religious and political conflicts found in fantasy intrigued me as well.

 M:  How did you and Barry go about building the physical world of COAS…the places of Faltyr, Oparre and Moor ‘dru where the stories take place?  How did you make them so complete…like actual main characters in and of themselves?
JH:   The setting for the Cycle of Ages Saga is a fusion of our two imaginations as much of it was drawn from separate worlds we created as settings for various role-playing games.  Faltyr is the main continent as well as the commonly used name for the world as it is the whole world for most of its provincial peoples.  The primary nations of Faltyr and its rulers come from Barry’s imagination as does the overriding plotline constituting the Cycle of Ages Saga.  Its races, cultures, religions, languages, and countless characters and subplots are products of both of our imaginations.  Many of the cultural groups, ethnicities, religions, locations, and even languages are based on examples from our own world.  This is a way of making the fantastic familiar to its general audience and allows us to investigate alternate ways of developing these civilizations and using them to tell our stories.  As with any good myth, it must seem rooted in truth.  We wanted to created a multi-layered world that would be worthy of the breadth and depth of our stories.  In the end, it was like weaving a tapestry with our minds.

M:  You’ve completed work on a different project called Night of the Living Rednecks.  As a zombie fan, I’m incredibly interested in this piece.  What do you think of the resurgence in zombie popularity so many years after the Night of the Living Dead movies in the 80’s given the success of shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and movies like Resident Evil and Zombieland?
JH:  I love it.  Zombies are the universal metaphor…the ultimate evil man needs to unite us and motivate us to get our shit together.  One of the basic unwritten rules of a good zombie movie, even a comedy, is to use zombies as a metaphor for some sociopolitical message.  George Romero established this with his series of zombie movies starting in the late 60s, a very political time for our nation and the world.  This makes zombie movies the ultimate vehicle to propagate unpopular or just volatile political speech.  For someone as politically-minded as myself, I really can’t say that I love it enough.  However, there is an entire legion of zombie movie filmmaker that doesn’t seem to get it, and those stories always fall flat.  Resident Evil is a good example of that in my opinion.  The games have a very political message having to do with evil transnational corporations, their immoral, illegal experiments, and the consequences to an ignorant, unsuspecting populace.  In the movies, however, these political messages were largely ignored to concentrate on Matrix-style action that you never even see in the entire series of games.  As far as The Walking Dead goes, I just hope AMC didn’t shoot themselves in the foot by getting rid of Frank Darabont.  For us, that could be a bonus though as it means that he’s available.  Call us, Frank! ;)

M:  I know that once your COAS: Finders Keepers screenplay was finished, you guys dove headlong into the query process and weathered a virtual storm of rejections before final success at landing an agent.  Would you agree that many writers who face initial rejection have probably queried too soon?  Any advice for aspiring writers about the query process? 
JH:  Absolutely—many writers query too soon.  Barry and I were so excited to have a finished manuscript that within one week of its completion we’d registered it with the American Writers’ Guild, built a web-site promoting it, established an L.L.C., and were sending it out to agents…[all of that] was a bit premature and we learned that the hard way.  The ultimate finished product that finally got us our agent is a far cry from the original piece.  There’s great software for writers called Final Draft Pro that I recommend.  It’s important to edit and get formatting right before querying.

M:  Years ago, during our *ahem* journalism days, we were warned of print media’s coming extinction.  In the last few years we’ve witnessed the death of newspaper publications across the county as more and more people get their news on-line.  Now, it appears as if the same could be true for the novel publishing industry.  As an artist, how do you feel about eBooks?
JH:  I think they’re great.  If you’re an author not utilizing them, you’re missing a market.
Michelle:  So, no feelings about the book as a ‘sacred object’ or anything like that?
JH:  Writers write for two reasons in my opinion:  to stay broke or get paid.  As a society we should be doing more to educate people, especially young people, on how to capitalize on their art.

M:  Speaking of ‘capitalizing on art’, you’re a huge proponent of bringing revenue to our state through television and film projects.  Atlanta, Georgia was recently named one of the top three cities in the U.S. for filming and has been the location for hundreds of films, commercials, music videos, series and specials over the past few years.  What can be done to bring that industry to Alabama?
JH:  Alabama has a lot to offer.  The setting for Night of the Living Rednecks starts on Ft. McClellan in Anniston, and we’d like to see it filmed there.  The rest of the movie takes place in and around a piney woods trailer park.  We’ve got no shortage of those in this state.  I think that whoever is currently in charge of promoting the film industry in Alabama is doing a very poor job.  And traditional media outlets are not much help either.  In fact, we tried to get the Anniston Star to do a story on us, our Kickstarter proposal, and our efforts to bring jobs to this county and this state through the entertainment industry, and—no surprise—we got no response.  People just don’t understand the amount of money that can be brought into a local economy by a major Hollywood film being shot here.  Nor do they understand that that can lead to more tourism dollars down the road.  Natchitoches, Louisiana still sees tourism dollars every year from the Steel Magnolia house and that film was shot last century.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my first author interview and that you’ll be on the lookout for Jeremy and Barry’s various projects.  It was fascinating to sit down with my friend and hear in detail about the CYCLE OF AGES SAGA and I can’t wait to see the duo’s vision come to life.  For more on Jeremy Hicks and Barry Hayes and their work, please visit http://www.brokeguysproductions.com or find them on Facebook at Broke Guys Productions.          

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Writers, Writers Everywhere

Almost two weeks ago, I attended my first writers’ conference.  I’ve been a member of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave for two years and after missing the 2010 conference in Birmingham and living with twelve months of regret, I couldn’t have been more excited to make it to Hunstville for 2011.  It was such an incredible experience to turn in any direction and be greeted with a smile or handshake and the question, “What do you write?”  I held my shoulders back and chin high and never felt one twinge of embarrassment when I answered:  “Middle-Grade/YA Fantasy.  My completed manuscript is about a girl who discovers she’s the long-awaited heir of a genie.”  It’s not a statement I make at my children’s school or in a room full of coworkers without feeling the sting of at least half a dozen eye rolls, so it was liberating to say the least.
The AWC conference had much to offer.  I attended workshops by Chris Roerden, award-winning author of Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, Insider Information from a Career Editor and its original version Don’t Murder Your Mystery, 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A., who taught me more about the impression a submission needs to make on the First Reader of a literary agency or publishing house and gave useful tips on “when to tell and how to show”; Jim Minick, poet and author of the memoir The Blueberry Years, about one of the mid-Atlantic’s first pick-your-own, certified-organic blueberry farms, who offered instruction on “Playing With Time:  How Prose Writers Manipulate Time” (helpful for all those flashbacks in HEIR TO THE LAMP when I fill-in the reader about a bit of back-story); and Rabbi Rami Shapiro, award-winning author, poet, essayist, educator and Director of The Writers’ Loft at Middle Tennessee State University, who’s workshop “What Would Jesus Tweet:  The Power of Writing Short” and presentation on his latest project “Thou Hast Mail” were hysterical and my very favorites.
I also met many delightful fellow attendees.  Two new friends, Joan Hazel and Patricia Weaver, won awards for short stories they submitted for the conference contests.  There were newspaper columnists, poets, and orators sprinkled in among the various fantasy, mystery, memoir, and literary writers, all at different stages in their writing careers.  It wasn’t until the end of the day on Saturday that I finally met up with the other children’s/YA writers, though.  They were a great group and I’m so glad to have met them.  I’ll be sure to seek out those peers earlier next time.
The highlight of my experience was the open-mic event Saturday night, when I read a few pages from my new project.  I’m calling the piece JUST LIKE MY FATHER SAID, but I’m pretty positive I won’t be keeping the title.  It’s a fictionalized story about my mother and her siblings, who lost their father the summer of 1968 when they were very young.  After their father’s death, their mother got a job for the first time and hired a housekeeper to look after them and their home while she struggled to adjust to life as a young widow.  I’ve known my whole life about the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s death and how that event impacted my grandmother, mother, aunt and uncle.  What I only learned recently, however, was that they were shepherded through this exceptionally painful time in their lives by their housekeeper, a black woman named Queen Esther Crumb.  After getting over the initial shock of having never been told of Queen Esther, my mind was crowded with thoughts of her and I practically hummed with urgency to write the story that brought her into my family history.  I read a few pages of my first draft to a room of fellow writers and got a warm response.  Sue Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama, even stopped by my seat afterwards to tell me how much she enjoyed what I’d read.  It’s quite different from The Genie Chronicles, but it will have an element of fantasy and I have high hopes for it.  I also had the pleasure of hearing others read some of their work.  My personal favorite was a piece called Spilled Milk by Stephen R. Edmondson. 
If I had the budget to do so, I’d attend a writers’ conference somewhere every weekend.  My first experience was the most fun, useful, constructive, motivating and encouraging I’ve had as a writer so far, and I’m already looking forward to the next.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Reading

My children have participated in our local public library’s Summer Reading Program virtually every summer of their lives.  It’s a great gig:  read five books, get a free pass to the city pool; read five more and get a pass to play mini-golf.  Five more gets a pass to the natural history museum, and so forth and so on.  My three youngest children were practically born readers and love a good story, while the oldest two can’t be bothered to even read the directions on the back of a pack or Ramen noodles (which has resulted in not one, not two, but three microwave fires at our home), so I think the “pay-to-play” approach to summer reading is ingenious.  Many thanks to the local merchants/attractions who participate in the program—my family and I will be patronizing you all year for your generosity.
Summer reading was an altogether different affair for me growing-up.  My mother did walk my sister and me to the library at least once a week and allow us to checkout a few books each during our elementary school years, but there was no trinket, no prize, waiting for us after we’d read them.  Our reward was the stories we took with us, stories that shaped our play time and provided us with imaginary adventures to occupy our long summer days.
In high school, Summer Reading became an oxymoron, a hindrance to sleeping until 2 p.m. and rising for only a few hours to splash around in a pool somewhere.  I’d procrastinate wading into John Steinbeck’s The Pearl or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and other assigned titles until early August, then spend the next month reading portions of the books and Cliff’s Notes and tracking down any movie versions I could possibly find.  There were a few assignments that I actually enjoyed.  J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit was one.  Robert Cormier’s After the First Death, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies were others.  I most likely wouldn’t have chosen the titles for myself and so I was able to concede that my English teachers did know what they were doing by assigning them after all.
My oldest children have their own reading assignments to complete this summer for the upcoming school year.  They’re reading some of the aforementioned standards:  The Good Earth, Lord of the Flies, and The Giver, but #2 son has also been assigned Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  This thrills my soul as I am a HUGE fan of Collins’ trilogy (see blogs #1 & 3) and believe that the story couldn’t be more timely or poignant in a world obsessed with “Reality” TV or as Megan Whalen Turner of Publisher’s Weekly asks, “What happens when we choose entertainment over humanity?”  I’ve been extolling the virtues of Huger Games to #2 and his siblings for months now, but it wasn’t until the book popped up on his “Required Summer Reading” list that #2 gave in and started reading.  There’ll be no reward for him at the story’s conclusion, save the adventure he’s sure to have trouble getting out of his head…and I’ve promised to take him to see the forthcoming Hunger Games movie due out March 2012…but I dare say he won’t be disappointed.
As for my own personal Summer Reading List, I’m enjoying  The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman and Graveminder by Melissa Marr.  All three novels are set in the late 1960’s.  (Please see correction in comments section)  I’m reading Beautiful Girl while relaxing outside with the kids and whenever I can loll in the tub unaccompanied (a rare feat these days with a three-year-old that seems to be able to perceive me disrobe through walls), and Graveminder when I’m unable to sleep and in the mood for something deliciously creepy.  In between, I’m listening to CeeCee Honeycutt, read by Jenna Lamia, 2010 winner of the Audie Award for Best Solo Narration-Female, at my desk. 
I recently finished another edit of Heir to the Lamp and began work on a second manuscript.  I’d originally intended to jump into the second installment of The Genie Chronicles, especially since I’ve been including the fact that I have some work on it complete as a selling point in a few of the query letters I’ve sent out for the first book, (I do have a couple of rough chapters and an outline done), but the discovery of a tidbit of family history I’d never known has sent me off in another direction entirely.  I’m justifying spending so much time reading lately as research—the new story I’m working on takes place in the late 1960’s as well.  I’ve hammered out a couple of chapters already out of pure necessity—the idea was corking up the flow of other ideas, as any good idea is known to do.  The first page is already up on WeBook.com and receiving favorable ratings, but aside from one trusted reader, I’m not quite ready to share it with anyone I know personally.
In other news, still no word from the publisher that requested a rewrite of the first three chapters of Heir to the Lamp.  I’m hoping the delay means that they’re merely bogged down with their own Summer Reading List and not that they’ve gotten to my manuscript and hated it.  Please keep your fingers crossed for me out there.
I’m looking into a website to make excerpts from the book available to those of you who’ve expressed interest in reading some of it.  I’ll let you know when that’s squared away.
So, what are you guys and your kids reading this summer?  Any suggestions as to what I might enjoy too?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Home Sweet Home

You might be surprised to know that the biggest dilemma I faced while readying myself and the chirren for our cruise last week was not how to accommodate eight bathing suits, twelve pairs of flip-flops, 30 pairs of underwear and a mountain of other foolishness in the mere three pieces of luggage allotted to me by my Dear Mother, but rather what reading material I should take with me to the Bahamas.
I did a little research, looked into suggestions made by other travelers, contemplated classics like Treasure Island.  I even considered something frivolous—I was going to be on vacation after all.  Celia Rivenbark’s new book You Don’t Sweat Much For a Fat Girl was especially tempting, but me sitting on the deck of a cruise ship snorting…and I mean through both nostrils and choking on my own saliva the way all Ms. Rivenbark’s books are known to make me do…didn’t fit very well with my fantasy of lounging on the Serenity Deck, cocktail in hand, with the sound of the massive ship gliding smoothly through the royal blue waters of the open ocean lulling me into total relaxation.
What to read was the hardest decision I made about my trip.  Harder than deciding which fine meals I would indulge in at the formal dining…would it be Baked Alaska or another serving of Warm Chocolate Melting Cake?... harder than deciding whether I would bother to get dressed for the day at all or just frolic around in my bathing suit for twelve straight hours, harder than deciding how I would gamble in the casino…the slot machines lit up and made delightful noises when you won, but the dealers at the tables would flirt with you for tips.  Can you see the predicaments I faced?
Any-who, what I chose in the end came as quite a surprise.  After much research and thumbing through many books at Books-A-Million and the Anniston Public Library, I was drawn to and ultimately selected Rick Bragg’s The Most They Ever Had, a collection of stories about the mill people of my very own home town.
I’ve loved all of Pulitzer Prize Winner Rick Bragg’s books—if you’ve never read All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man or the Prince of Frogtown, each a separate telling of Bragg’s family history, then you don’t know what you’re missing—and The Most They Ever Had didn’t disappoint.  It was especially interesting to see from a literal distance the people of the mills Bragg writes about, the people I have lived with and alongside while taking them for granted my entire life.
I never made it to what I am beginning to believe an invention of my Aunt Gwen and Dear Mother, the fabled Serenity Deck.  I couldn’t escape all those kids of mine for long enough.  Truth is, I barely had time to read while actually on the ship and I was too worried about one of the little beasties drowning while at the beaches.  I did, however, have occasion to read on the ride home from Jacksonville, FL thanks to Aunt Gwen’s desire to always be the driver and never the passenger on road trips.  As punishment for keeping me otherwise engaged most of the cruise, I read the majority of The Most They Ever Had aloud to the chirren in the van.  “Shut up and learn about the culture of your people!” I could be heard shouting over the den of noise between chapters.  It was great!  They listened, reluctantly at first but eventually with interest.  It didn’t hurt that I’d threatened them with the additional torture of an actual book report if they didn’t cooperate.  God, I love being a mother.
In the words of Mr. Bragg, The Most They Ever Had is “a mill story; not of bricks, steel and cotton, but of the people who suffered it to live.”  It’s the story of my people, my great-grandmother Aggie, my grandfather Jack, my grandmother Rosa and the town where I was raised.  It is a story I may not have appreciated fully if I’d read it just five miles down the road from the now silent and dismantled mill of its pages.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Storm of Memory

Last week I was asked for the second time in my life to write an obituary.  The first obit I ever wrote was for the 96 year-old father of my future brother-in-law and the second for his 88 year-old mother who survived her husband of 73 years by a mere 99 days.  Little Sister and her fiancĂ© wanted something more personal than the fill-in-the-blank style paragraph the funeral home typically draws up for publication in our local paper, and I was honored—on both occasions—when they asked me to help.
I knew Mr. Roy Hardy and his wife Mrs. Jewell Hardy only briefly (we’d spent a few holidays together at my sister’s place) but during my short acquaintance with them, I found them to be lovely people—charming and endearing in a way that people of a certain age often seem to me.  It was through the process of writing their obituaries and later Mrs. Hardy’s eulogy with my sweet sister and aunt, assisted by notes from various family members and photo albums, that I truly came to know the lifelong partners—to understand how hard-working, generous, funny, loyal, steadfast, honest and loving they each were in their own way.  I wish that I had known them better while they lived.
Writing the obits set me to wondering what people might have to say about me when I’m gone.  Will they stick to the basic facts: place and dates of birth and death, a list of survivors?  Or will they be compelled to say more as the family of Mr. and Mrs. Hardy were?  I confess that I hope for the latter.  It would also be nice to leave them with 90 or so years of biography to work with, too.  But you never know.  The devastating storms that racked my state and the entire Southeast the day before Mrs. Hardy’s funeral are proof enough of that. 
The tornados of April 27, 2011 resulted in tremendous loss.  The small community where I live and adjacent small towns were hit hard.  Neighbors lost their lives, friends and co-workers lost their homes and all their worldly possessions, people were hurt and some remain missing.
I weathered the storm hunkered down with some of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Roy and Jewell Hardy in the large and comfortable house of my sister and her soon-to-be hubby.  Inwardly I agonized over the fate of my own small home in The Valley, but I was relieved to be safe with my children—if I’d lost everything I owned that night, at least I’d still have them…the little people I strive every day to give something to that they’ll be able to recount at the end of my days.
We all made it safely through that night and I have to say that the ordeal, in addition to my work on the eulogy my sister delivered at Mrs. Hardy’s funeral service the next morning, has made me feel a lot closer to the Hardy Family.  We’ll all remember that night forever…the people we sat next to in the dark huddled around laptops, smart-phones and radios, eager for the latest news…and the dear lady whose passing brought us all to the same place of safety.
I received my first “review” for the obits, by the way.  One of the directors at the funeral home said to my sister, “You write the best obituaries.”  Little Sister just smiled—for arguments sake let’s assume she was grieving and unable to form the appropriate response of, “My fabulous older-but-only-by-ten-months-and-twenty-seven-days sister wrote them and I’ll be sure to pass your compliment on to her,”—but one of the other family members interjected and put forth my name so that they (the funeral home) know who to call if they ever get tired of faking it with those pitiful, half-hearted remembrances they send in to the paper.
I hope anyone who happens to read this also made it through the terrible storms of last week safely and that each of you will do at least a little something for someone who didn't.  A few hours of your time, clothing or household items, blood or cash.  Whatever you can spare.  Find an organization you trust--the American Red Cross or local churches--and give.  I myself have donated to the family of a classmate of my 2nd grade son, whom were badly injured and lost their home.  I'm also looking into book donations for twelve Alabama public libraries that were badly damaged.  Please leave word if you have books you'd like to donate as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poetry Smackdown: Frost vs. Dylan

Well, fellow worms, I suppose I shouldn’t let the month of April slip away from me (as more and more months do with alarming rapidity of late) without acknowledging that it is National Poetry Month. 
I must admit that I haven’t read much in the way of poetry since my college days.  That is unless you count Anna Dewdney’s llama llama red pajama (which is my three-year-old’s absolute favorite book ever) or her equally masterful follow-up llama llama mad at momma.  Dewdney’s rhyming story lines about a loveable llama expressing his emotions over every toddler’s worst life experiences—bedtime and grocery shopping—are about as close as I’ve come to reading any poetry since the required Frost, Poe and Dickinson of Freshman English…or so I thought.
 I’ve spent the last few days considering poetry as an art form, trying to answer for myself the not so simple question:  What is poetry exactly?  Having never met a question I don’t want to immediately google, I turned to the internet.  On a side note, I’m following a blog by a woman known simply as Megan B. called Bangable Dudes in History, and have decided to comment to Ms. B. that she should strongly consider Google inventors Larry Page and Sergey Brin while cooking up her next pie chart of bangability.  The guys are Stanford grads that built their first server network out of cheap, used and borrowed PC’s and called the program (which would eventually become Google and secure $1,000,000.00 in funding) Backrub.  Hello?  Bangable on sooooo many levels.  But I digress.
Anyway, thanks to Larry and Sergey, I learned that Aristotle’s early attempt to define poetry focused on the use of speech in rhetoric, drama, song and comedy, while later attempts by others concentrated on the aesthetics that distinguish poetry from other forms of writing:  repetition, verse form and rhyme.  This led me to consider the musicality of poetry.  Aren’t songs and poems virtually the same thing?  Turns out, that all depends on who you ask.  Some argue that song lyrics are not meant to stand on their own.  While I cannot think of too many “poems” I would like to hear with instrumental accompaniment, (certainly no music could improve the lines “baby llama what a tizzy, sometimes momma’s very busy, no more of this llama drama, you must be patient for your momma”—they are beyond perfection) I do believe there are some songwriters whose lyrics are most definitely capable of "flying solo”.  Take Aoife O’Donovan’s song Lay My Burden Down which can be found on Alison Krauss and Union Station’s newest album Paper Airplane.
               Gonna lay my burden down
               Lay my body in the ground
               Cold clay against my skin
               But I don’t care at all

               Can’t seem to find my piece of mind
               So with the earth I’ll lay entwined
               Six feet underground
               My feet are warm and dry            

Or just about any of Bob Dylan’s songs.  These lines are from Farewell Angelina:

               Farewell Angelina
               The bells on the crown
               Are being stolen by bandits
               I must follow the sound
               The triangle tingles
               And the music plays slow
               But farewell Angelina
               The night is on fire
               And I must go

               There is no use in talking
               And there’s no need for blame
               There is nothing to prove
               Everything still the same
               A table stands empty
               By the edge of the stream
               But farewell Angelina
               The sky is changing colors
               And I must leave

Both examples stand alone as poetry, whether so intended, in my opinion.  If I’m able to count the many song lyrics I’ve committed to memory over my lifetime as poetry, then I intended to hold my head a little higher for the rest of the month of April.  I may only be able to recite a few lines of Robert Frost’s The Road Less Traveled, but I can recall whole LP’s worth of the likes of Jimmy Buffet and Sting.

Who are your favorite poets/songwriters?  Any memorable lines you’d like to share?





Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Story Worth Telling

This week I am reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay.  They are vastly different stories—the first being an adaptation of the Jane Austen classic regency romance suffused with bone-crunching zombie action, the second a middle-grade crime novel set in 1950’s England described in one review as “Harriet the Spy meets Agatha Christie”, and the third the conclusion of the YA Hunger Games trilogy about a future where politics, war and entertainment have become virtually indistinguishable and the kick-butt teenage heroine that rages against it.
I’m having a fabulous time with these books—each of them a little excursion to a time and place inaccessible to me in the real world—but as the heading of my blog suggests, they are cutting into my writing time.  Even this blog, which I am hugely enjoying thinking about, planning and composing, is preventing me from finishing the eleven thousandth edit of my manuscript.
Last night I revisited my little novel.  It’s been weeks since I stopped editing at page 127 of 167.  I guess I’ve been feeling a bit burned out after completely reworking the story three times over the past year and doing cover to cover edits after almost every rejection letter that I’ve received from the ten or so literary agents I’ve queried so far.  I suppose it hasn’t helped much that some of the incredible books I’ve read of late have tempted me to throw my keyboard out the nearest window, sure that I’ll never be able to compete; but, last night after rereading a few sections of my manuscript, The Genie Chronicles:  Book One, Heir to the Lamp, I came away with renewed hope about its publication potential and determination to finish the latest edit.  I guess that’s the thing about being a writer—you always believe your stories are worth telling.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t keep at it.
So, I’ve resolved to do the following:  to take only inspiration from what I’m reading—no more thoughts of doubt that I’ll ever measure-up; to continue to see every rejection as a push to work harder, an opportunity to refine my craft; and finally, to make time every day to work on my manuscript.
I know that some visitors to this blog are fellow writers.  I’d love to hear how you stay motivated.  Any tips or advice?


Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Alive!

"When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to be alive and talking to me."                
-Jonathan Swift

The first memory I have of a book being read to me is The Boxcar Children when I was about five.  I'm sure there were others when I was younger than that, but during my mother's nightly ritual of snuggling into bed with my younger sister Stacey and me the summer I was five and reading aloud to us the adventures of orphans Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, their story came alive for me in a way no other had before.  I can still see clearly in my mind's eye the four siblings sleeping in haystacks and traveling by night, the abandoned boxcar they would make a home, Jessie scouring scavenged dishes in the stream of a creek.

As I grew up and became a proficient reader myself, I must have naturally concluded that my days of being read to were over, because I didn't give it much thought until my last couple of years in high school.  I had a close friend with a brilliant mind for mathmatics (she did her best to help me pass Algebra II as a junior, but I was hopeless) and a reading learning disability.  One of the techniques Miss Math Wiz used to overcome her disablility involved her saint of a mother reading aloud FOUR YEARS worth of Honors English reading assignments into a cassette recorder that her baby girl could replay while she followed along in the actual book.  Wiz let me listen to a few of them once and I just couldn't believe what her precious Momma had so painstakingly done for her.  Books on tape.  Wow!  Visions of never cracking open another reading assignment danced in my head, but when I went to my own Momma with a stack of books and a recorder she reminded me that English was my best subject and offered to read aloud only from my Algebra book.

It wasn't until my early 20's that I rediscovered that wonderful invention of books on tape (now referred to as Audio Books as they are also produced in disk and digital format) during long commutes to and from the many and far-flung county courthouses I trekked to every weekday as part of my job as a real estate title abstractor.  It hadn't taken long for me to tire of the monotonous music and talk shows on the radio during the three to six hours a day I spent in my car, so after a suggestion from a friend and fellow abstractor, I checked out my local library's selection of audio books.  I've been hooked ever since.

Listening to an audio book is like listening to a friend tell a story.  Many friends in some cases.  My favorite audio books are performed by a cast of characters, but some narrators are so good that you don't even realize it's only one person reading all the characters' parts.  Take Jim Dale, narrator of the Harry Potter series, for example.  Mr. Dale is a Tony Award winning actor and winner of multiple Audie Awards (the audio book industry's equivalent to the Grammy Awards).  When listening to his narration of HP, one quickly forgets that the same individual is reading both Harry and Hermione's parts.  Many narrators are similarly gifted.

Adults and children alike can appreciate audio books as a way to pass time on the go.  It's a medium that's easily accessible at low cost.  Free in many cases.  They also provide educational opportunites.

Whatever your listening needs, there's a library, company or website that specializes in your preferences.  Most public libraries have an audio section.  Many have digital catalogs where selections can be downloaded to your PC, ipod or mp3 player.  I am currently listening to Seth Grahme-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an adaptation of the Jane Austen classic that I've checked-out from my local library on my PC.  There are websites such as Audible.com and Recordedbooks.com that offer some free downloads as well as downloads for rent or purchase.

So, the next time you're itching to start that novel you're dying to read but can't stop what your're doing, consider an audio book.  Leave the kiddo's portable DVD player at home the next time you take a road trip and let Jim Dale transport you all to Hogwarts.  Go back to that summer when you were five and someone read aloud to you, even if it's just for the 30 minutes it takes to drive to the office.  You won't regret it.