Saturday, November 28, 2009

May All Your Fences Have Gates

“Meet me at the fence,” was the most common telephone phrase shared between our neighbor, Helen, and the baking members of our family. During the 1960’s, last minute shopping wasn’t always an option as our family had one car and dad had taken it to work. We met our neighbor at the fence for a cube of butter or an egg and the conversations that I took for granted as a child, but remember fondly as an adult.

When one sister inquired of the other, “Where’s mom?” the other would answer “check the fence.” More often than not, mom was standing at the low fence talking and laughing with Helen. My grandfather, a mason by trade, built our fence, creating this knee-high meeting place where pathways from each house greeted each other naturally. He learned his skills in Switzerland where fences were built to last centuries. The rest of the fence was a six foot high wall of cinderblock that surrounded our house like a fortress. And perhaps it was to my parents, the protectors of their three little girls.

I hadn’t thought about my childhood fence until last spring when I discovered a neighbor building his own fence. I was moved by the beauty of his design and was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Fences. The poem describes the author and his New England neighbor meeting in the spring to mend the stone fence between their properties. On the surface, it is a joyful retelling of a necessary chore, but the poem has become a metaphor for a myriad of human relationships and experiences. President John F. Kennedy is said to have quoted the first line from Mending Fences when he visited the Berlin wall in 1963, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

A fence is a part of our language as well as our landscape. To mend a fence means to resolve a conflict. To put up a fence describes an emotional barrier. To hurdle a fence defines a success. August Wilson wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning play about racism that was entitled Fences. As an African American man born in 1945, Wilson encountered the fences of prejudice first hand. Disgusted by the racist treatment he endured in school, he dropped out but was determined to educate himself in the local library. Wilson knew it was possible to overcome fences that others may erect, and to dissolve the fences that we may create. When asked to sign a copy of his play, he wished his young fan well by writing, May all your fences have gates.

Years ago, I followed a pathway along the cliffs of the Scottish coast. It was an enchanting world of vibrant green grass, grazing sheep and baby lambs. Along the way, I climbed on the ruins of an ancient castle and ate my sack lunch on its stone steps overlooking the North Sea. The sky was overcast and every breeze carried the scent of the sea. Every half-mile or so, my hiking companions and I would come to a fence. Fences are an integral part of the Scottish landscape given that grazing and farming at one time covered three quarters of the land and boundaries were an important part of building good relationships. But in spite of the fences, the hike was possible because there was either a gate or a rough wooden step to hop over.

In the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about fences. I cannot drive my car or ride my bike without noticing fences. Fences can be works of art or expressions of creativity, but mostly they serve as boundaries, to keep children safe or to keep the dog confined. Fences have shown me the kindness of strangers who allowed me to enter their yard, take a photograph and hear the story of their fence. Given the prevalence and power of fences, whether they are mental or physical, whether they hold back, hold in, divide, unite, or inspire, I think of Wilson’s phrase and try to implement it often. To you, the reader, I pass along the wish: may all your fences have gates.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Writer is a Synonym for Optimism (You Just Didn't Know This)

Let me begin today's post by setting up the scene...Here I am typing in front of my screen. It is 9:25 and I am still in my pajamas and robe with a large bowl full of buttery (repeat for Becca), buttery popcorn, melted with Kraft parmesan cheese. I can hear your moans but it really is a deeeeeelicious combination. Anyway. I am especially happy, because I got up the nerve to email current editor and ask her what has happened to my manuscript. Never expecting a reply, I was shocked when minutes later she wrote back that she has it, has been busy, but will get back to me soon. But,,,, what does soon mean? And that is the point of today's post. Writers are optimists: We can write better, come up with more ideas tomorrow, someone, someday will love what we write. And we can never ever lose this! The day we do, we can no longer call ourselves WRITERS.

Also, I am looking forward to Becca's book signing on Saturday the 14th. It will be the first time I have supported her and I can't wait. I have to buy her book for my current shelf.

I also have come to the conclusion that I have been missing how important the query is-It needs to be as well crafted as a manuscripts. We really ought to start critiquing queries.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I'm Truly Happiest When...

I'm reading 6 or 7 books at a time. Currently I'm reading 4 very different YA and MG novels. I want to highlight a bit from each.

Leaving the Bellweathers by Kristin Clark Venuti. A first novel, picked up by Egmont or Elizabeth Law. I'm not sure who discovered it though. A really cute, strange, unique family with a butler who plans to leave the family after 200 years of of his family's service. It's an Adam's Family meets Matilda.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate-by Jacqueline Kelly. A first novel by a woman who is a physician and a lawyer. So far beautifully written. Opening paragraph: "By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark , hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns."

Another sweet line: "The little boys actually managed to sleep at midday sometimes even piled atop one another like damp, steaming puppies."

Guys Write For Guys Read-presented by Jon Scieszka/ A compilation of stories or experiences by the most prolific male writers. A few stories in, I'm a little stunned by the the retelling of vomiting, farting and ...what can I say never having a son, a brother or being a female my entire life. It helps me understand why I can't write in the male first person. Hopefully this will get better.

The Luxe (series). Really, a steamy, bad rich privileged girl book of the 19th century. It's YA, and even though it intonates some risque behavior, the writer doesn't include the actual sex. So it's clean enough for YA but don't kid yourself.

Given the variety of these books--I know there is room out there for all kinds of writing and stories. Keep writing and your writing will find a home.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Take it Easy...Write a Novel

I have no idea where I got this-I don't even know if the credits are right. But I wanted to post it to reemphasize the importance of persistence in this endeavor.

Ron Empress/Lilianamama
Author of about 15 drafts of Mourn Their Courage

A friend of mine who used to write a lot wrote this in reply to someone who was vaguely wondering if he should start writing the next best-seller. I thought it was amusing and thought I would share:

Morning Russ: All you gotta do to become the great writer is one step at a time, same as the other. First step's to cogitate for a week, then write a single page plot summary.

Second step is to use that plot summary to turn out a single page chapter summary for each chapter, say one per week if that suits your schedule.

Third step is generating all your characters, one page per character, one character per week, say, learning everything about each one, whether what you're learning has anything to do with the book or plot at all. Just becoming intimately acquainted with each character and everything God would know about them and their neighbors and best friends don't.

Fourth step is knowing that chapter summary, characters and plot well enough to write, say, chapter 5, ten pages of first draft. Then the rest in any order that suits you.

Fifth step is to put down the first draft and let it mellow for six weeks while your immortal prose turns to trash.

Sixth step is to take that first draft up after six weeks and read it, faint and revive yourself, shrug, and begin the first re-write. Cutting and pasting, firming up the plot, inserting mechanisms in chapter three to allow things to happen or explain them in chapter seven, etc, firming up dialogue, characters, maybe removing some and adding others.

Seventh step is putting all that into a second, clean draft, then putting it down six weeks and letting it turn to garbage.

Eighth step is picking it up again and beginning the final draft.

Ninth step is sending out queries to publishers trying to get someone willing to read sample chapters.

Nothing to it.