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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 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?