Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kvelling and Conferencing

I'm still at work at 10:53 at night! Third late night in a row, too (though tonight I went to the gym and out to grab dinner before I came back to the office). But nighttimes and weekends are the best time to get real editing done, when the phone doesn't ring, the e-mail doesn't chirp, and no one can bring rush mechanicals by; and this ms. is moving along swimmingly, tiny infelicities falling right and left. Lord, I love the work of my work, when it's going well like this.

I just accepted an invitation to speak at the Michigan SCBWI conference in Kalamazoo October 6-8. I am not quite sure what I am going to speak about . . . Voice, maybe, like I was saying earlier, or bringing together and refining all the ms.-evaluation techniques I've used elsewhere -- the character chart, the plot worksheet -- and talking about ways to approach novel revision. I've also been thinking for a long time about writing something about nitty-gritty editing like the kind I'm doing tonight: how I look at a manuscript both globally and line-by-line; how I edit it based on that analysis; how those editorial ideas are expressed to my authors (though this really depends on the ms. and the author); what happens next. This would also probably link up with the novel-revision idea in the end, so there'd be something concrete and usable for writers to take away. . . .

What do you all think? Any topics you'd love to hear an editor cover?

Back to the manuscript now!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Why I Love Jane Austen

A drizzly, languorous Sunday here, with all the usual restful ritual of the day for me: church in the morning, shopping afterward at CVS for dry goods and Steve's C-Town for groceries, back to my apartment for lunch (blue cheese, crackers, and a green apple today), check e-mail, a little work, talk to Katy in the UK and Ted for our ongoing joint read of The Odyssey, run, shower, fix dinner, relax, talk to my family in Missouri, go to bed.

This is very solitary, you will note. It is not exciting. It is like two hundred other Sundays I've had in my nearly six years of New York life, and for most twentysomethings, it would be stolid beyond belief. But I love it and am happy in it; and as odd as this sounds, that is partly due to Jane Austen.

I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was thirteen years old, finishing the entire book from the First Proposal on in one breathless, besotted night. I loved Elizabeth, I loved Mr. Darcy, I loved "In vain I have struggled," I fangirled all over it. Two years later, the famed A&E/BBC production aired on TV, and I watched it in a state of mild disbelief: Was Mrs. Bennet really that awful? Did Mr. Collins actually say that in the novel? Surely Mr. Darcy didn't swim? I went back to the book and discovered what my romance-clouded reading had missed the first time through: Jane Austen was funny, often screamingly so, if you paid close enough attention to hear what she was saying. I reread the novel with new eyes, and the fact that I had missed such a major component of the book taught me to try to listen, really listen, to the books I was reading and the people around me.

This experience made me an editor, more or less, because editing is nothing but close attention to every word, every comma. And with further reading of Jane Austen's novels, I learned what I think of as the Zen of Jane Austen: Observe everything you can. If it is good, celebrate it; if it is funny, relish it; if it is wrong, condemn it; and if you can, record it, as clearly and accurately and intelligently as you know how, and it will speak for itself for ages to come. Austenblog quoted this passage from Emma in a recent post, and it made my jaw drop all over again with its brilliance:

Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking–strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.–”The best fruit in England–every body’s favourite–always wholesome.–These the finest beds and finest sorts.–Delightful to gather for one’s self–the only way of really enjoying them.–Morning decidedly the best time–never tired–every sort good–hautboy infinitely superior–no comparison–the others hardly eatable–hautboys very scarce–Chili preferred–white wood finest flavour of all–price of strawberries in London–abundance about Bristol–Maple Grove–cultivation–beds when to be renewed–gardeners thinking exactly different–no general rule–gardeners never to be put out of their way- delicious fruit–only too rich to be eaten much of–inferior to cherries–currants more refreshing–only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping–glaring sun–tired to death–could bear it no longer–must go and sit in the shade.”

In one paragraph, Jane Austen gives you an hour in Mrs. Elton's company, beginning with her "apparatus of happiness" (such a lovely phrase), her desire to lead the way, her perky never-tiredness, and her cheerleading for strawberries; then the ease with which she changes her favorite kind of strawberry, Maple Grove (her rich sister's estate, which she mentions at every opportunity), the gardeners not knowing as well as she does how to grow the fruit; and then her developing tiredness, which leads to trashing strawberries and her desire to sit down. All of Mrs. Elton is there in this paragraph, her small mind; her flexibility of principle in the face of circumstance or social advantage; her infinite undeserved sense of superiority; and most especially the fact that she doesn't listen to what she's saying, that she speaks without any real meaning to her words -- always the hallmark of villains and fools in Jane Austen. It's a little miracle of dialogue and characterization, and it advances the scene by moving us through an hour of the garden party!

So Jane Austen taught me first to notice these features in a text, then she taught me to appreciate them for their truth and the beauty in that truth. But the Zen of Jane Austen works outside literature as well. The taste of a sweet wine or sharp cheese; a friend's characteristic turn of phrase; the finery of a sparkling summer night: Appreciating these things begins with paying attention to them, being in them, almost, and outside yourself. And from appreciation grows love, and love, happiness -- a small kind, but an important one: the pleasure of having such wonderful things in your world.

Thus I love Austen for the romance, humor, wisdom, the snapshot of a world seemingly more beautiful and orderly than ours; I love her for the endless pleasure of her texts -- the perfect plots, gloriously balanced sentences, truthful characters, the fact I always find something new. But most especially I love her because she taught me to observe and appreciate the little things, beginning with one paragraph in one marvelous book, and expanding out into kind people, funny menus, great music -- and quiet Sundays.

Quizzical; or, Five Fun Ways to Kill Three Minutes

What kind of writer are you?

You're a Plot writer!
Take this quiz!


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And the number of people who are surprised by this? (But writing style and good characterization count for a lot with me too!)


Which Winnie the Pooh character are you?

You are Rabbit! Although you have the best intentions, your snobby attitude sometimes annoys those around. You're practical, but dull.
Take this quiz!


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Oy! I was afraid I'd get Rabbit. But only 4% people get this result, so at least I'm a unique snob.


This one, at least, is totally appropriate.

What Piece of Office Supplies Are You? (many, many clever results with pictures)

You are an ERASER! You spend your time helping people smooth over their mistakes. It's a messy job, but you have the helpful attitude to get it done. Your coworkers appreciate that you are so friendly and non-judgmental, but make sure they aren't taking advantage of your expertise. If you don't make people clean up their own mess from time to time you'll always be covered in dirt that isn't yours (and that's not fair to you because your kindness is so valuable).
Take this quiz!


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Which Peanuts Character are You?


And for sheer amusement value . . .

Will Draco Malfoy fall for you?

He will never fall for you because you have upsetted him, your in a different house, either friends with Potter or he just... well hates you!
Take this quiz!

Quizilla |

| Make A Quiz | More Quizzes | Grab Code

Saturday, June 24, 2006

"In Praise of My Bed," by Meredith Holmes

At last I can be with you!
The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
clean smoothness
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.

(N.B.I: The posting of this poem is dedicated to my bed, for which I am thankful every single night.)

(N.B.II: Most of the poems I post, including this one, come from the Writer's Almanac daily e-mail, which I highly commend for its wit, wisdom, and wonderful contemporary and classic poetry. Among the poets I've met through it are Stephen Dobyns, Barbara Crooker, William Stafford ("Wisdom is having things right in your life / and knowing why."), Tony Hoagland, and Stephen Dunn ("I was burned by books early / and kept sidling up to the flame"). To subscribe to the Writer's Almanac, click here.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Power (or Lack-of-Power) Post

This has been a long and tiring day. The mentally and emotionally tiring part was figuring out what I want to publish, the best way to publish it, and how to get everyone else on board with it . . . just like it is most every day: reading, and feeling, and interrogating those feelings, and then thinking, and writing, and talking intensely, all in the service of books I hope other people will read and then feel and think and write and talk about intensely too. It is a lovely job, but it can be exhausting, and today was one of those days.

The physically tiring part was that I ran the Chase Corporate Challenge. The CCC in NYC is a 3.5-mile run through Central Park, from 72nd St. just above my beloved Cherry Hill, over the Reservoir, up to 103rd St. or so, down past the Metropolitan Museum and the Boathouse, and finishing up this year at Cherry Hill again. Teams from various corporations compete in the run, each decked out in shirts with the company logo and sometimes a cute saying or other corporate branding. I've run on the Scholastic team for the last four years, and I have a Harry Potter 5 shirt (which says "Ready. Set. Fly." on the back), a Geronimo Stilton ("It's a rat race out here!"), an It's Happy Bunny ("I may be slow, but I'm in front of you.") and now Bone ("C'mon, Grandma!"). Half the entertainment of the race for me is indeed reading the other companies' shirts and seeing how they represented themselves or worked running into their corporate communication clothing:

  • Sotheby's: "Going - Going - Gone"
  • Hallmark Channel: "It's not the victory that's important, but the journey" (or something rather more elegantly phrased than this, but no less sappy)
  • MoMA: [the MoMA logo on a gray square as seen from behind, as if you were looking at it through a glass window]
  • Some investment firm: "Making It Happen . . . One Step at a Time"
  • Some law firm: "Going the Distance for Our Clients"

(There were other, better, ones, but my brain feels lightly sauteed right now. Yes, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.) Anywho. The weather was steamy, and I had no goal beyond completing the whole course without walking. But not very far from the beginning of the race, an overenthusiastic young person was cheering for the various shirts that ran by -- "Yeah Informa! Yeah Bear Stearns!" This immediately made me start brainstorming Scholastic cheers, and I came up with:

S, S, S-C-H

And then of course the chant was stuck in my head the whole race, in various permutations:

S, S, S-C-H-O
L, L, L-A-S-T
Let's go

I also started:

Clifford, Clifford
He's our dog
If he can't do it . . .

But then I was stumped. "He's a frog!"? "I won't blog!"? Your suggestions welcome. Anywho again, when I wasn't cataloging t-shirts or reciting cheers in my mind like the cheerleader wannabe I am, I was trying to compute my pace and what I'd need to do to maintain it (because any mental activity is a blessing during a run, even math). I ended up at a slightly-better-than 10:45/mile average, coming in at 37:14 -- not as good as last year, but whatever. I'm getting older. After the race ended, I drank my free power waters, ate my free power bars (actually two Prias and an Atkins Advantage), and gratefully came home to a power shower, power takeout sushi, and soon my beloved, much-longed-for power bed.

End of tired story. Here's wishing you all lots of power and fun t-shirts -- but no annoying rhyming chants -- in the days to come.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Randominotes & Reading Lists

  • Two pieces on editing: An essay from Ursula K. LeGuin's editor Michael Kandel, and an interview with Michael Ondaatje's editor Ellen Seligman
  • Thinking about these articles, I Googled the phrase "The Art of Editing," and I discovered a book by that title has been written by Jack Z. Sissors! Best editor name ever.
  • And the Band Name of the Day: I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
  • A classic from the Onion: National Funk Congress Deadlocked on Get Up/Get Down Issue. "The bitter get up/get down battle, which has polarized the nation's funk community, is part of a long-running battle between the two factions, rooted in more than 35 years of battle over the direction in which the American people should shake it."
  • I bought two songs off iTunes this weekend: "Right Back Where We Started From" by Maxine Nightingale, and "Under Pressure" by David Bowie & Queen.
  • Speaking of songs with great hooks that are then stolen by vastly inferior artists, I learned the hook from Madonna's hit "Hung Up" was taken from the ABBA song "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)." Though ABBA and Madonna . . . I don't know, that might be a tossup.
  • I have made my fabulous pancakes twice in the last week, and tonight I fixed Blue Cheese Spaghettini.
  • Writing Note of the Day: It is generally not a good idea to begin your novel in the middle of a highly stressful situation -- a battle, a tidal wave, a fight (physical or verbal), etc. -- as we readers do not know the characters enough to care about the mortal or emotional danger they're in, and as we're occupied with figuring out the action, it's difficult to get to know them well enough that we start to care.
  • Like all rules for writing, now that I have laid this down, someone will prove me wrong, and I will be perfectly happy about it.
  • Now reading: Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (bought at the 7th Ave. street fair yesterday off R. J. Anderson's recommendation, and already proving dangerously addictive), The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, Spook by Mary Roach
  • Recently finished: Saint Iggy by K. L. Going, Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis (ehh), Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (a millionth-time reread)
  • Looking forward to: Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin, Making It Up by Penelope Lively, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers
  • And listening to: Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks, Ella Fitzgerald, and various Stephen Sondheim musicals (surprisingly good for running, since they're so intellectually engaging they distract from the boring activity)

Lastly, I was having coffee with a friend a week or so ago and he asked me to recommend a book for a long plane flight. My mind of course immediately went blank, so I decided to compile a list of relatively contemporary adult literary fiction I adore in case of any future emergencies. To quote a blurb for, I think, The Jane Austen Book Club: If I could eat these books, I would.

  • On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke -- a slow beginning, but after that brilliant and funny and character-driven and well-plotted and magical in every sense of the word
  • Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff -- an amazing novel about a man with multiple personalities, who each take turn narrating the book
  • Regeneration by Pat Barker -- Devastating British war novel #1
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan -- Devastating British war novel #2
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
  • The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • Jim the Boy by Tony Earley -- strongly reminiscent of E. B. White; wonderful wonderful, o most wonderful wonderful
  • Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • Possession by A. S. Byatt -- my favorite grown-up book, after selected works of Jane Austen
  • the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, beginning with Master and Commander -- I count reading all twenty of these in the course of 2002 as the most marvelous long-term reading experience of my life. Harry Potter is the only thing that comes close.
  • If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino -- a lovely book about the pleasures of reading
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Saturday, June 17, 2006

A totally smug and immature post

Neener neener neener!

I've read Lisa's So Totally Emily Ebers and you haven't!

hee hee

Friday, June 16, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part V

5. Come to a resolution.

When he was done he could hardly believe it. Reflexively he ran a word count: 3,321 words, 18,412 characters with spaces. In those characters Jack sulked at Rita till she made him laugh; Rita smiled at him and tried not to show how nervous she was -- she always cracked jokes when she was nervous. They talked about work and their families: Both told stories on his sister. The steak and chicken were delicious, and when they ate the silence was comfortable. He helped her with her coat on the way out. And the last thing that happened had become the only possible ending, the perfect unity of two third-person viewpoints: “They kissed under the white bulb that lit her front porch, and in the stillness was hope.”

Bill felt joyous, like singing, like kissing someone himself. He wanted to share this moment. And so hardly knowing what he was doing, he picked up the phone and dialed Sarah’s number.


“Bill. How’s it going?”

“I’m nearly done with a first draft, but I think I need to do more research,” he said. “Do you have any plans for this evening?”

“I don’t,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice.

“Would you meet me at the Deer Park Inn? Seven-thirty?”

“That would be wonderful. I’m guessing you found a point.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. "I found the point."

When they hung up it was five forty-five. He had time to shower and change. But before he did that he scrolled down through his story, rereading it carefully, not revising anything as yet. He had some fine-tuning to do, but he could manage that tomorrow before class. Bill read the last line and smiled. Yes. Sarah would like it. So did he.

And even though he knew it wasn't, that it would take revision, that it might in fact be a beginning, he centered his cursor in the middle of the line and typed


Thursday, June 15, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part IV

4. Remember Freytag’s triangle.

He sat down at the computer. A point… a point. What did he want to say about love? Or relationships? Or communication between the genders? What did he know about any of those topics? Surely it would be better to give this up and write a nice space-invader story.
But he’d told Sarah about Jack and Rita. He was committed now.

Reveal yourself,” Madame Markley hissed in his ear. “Think about your emotions.”

So Bill thought about all the times he’d been in love, or said he was. The first was probably Janie Bannerman in the ninth grade: She wore Baby Soft and red lipstick, and every male in the freshman class wanted to explore the contrast. When she picked him for Homecoming, he felt so nervous he could barely put his arms around her at the dance, and both of them were constantly aware of her shimmering sexual beauty -- so much so that it was a blessing when she moved on to a junior with a car. His friend Kathy, who he’d known since he was six, told him she loved him the spring they were to graduate. The moment had been difficult. He didn’t feel like that toward her, he was going to say, couldn’t they just keep being friends?; then he looked at her and knew first that they couldn’t and second that it was going to hurt both of them if he said no. But would it hurt more to lie? She thought she heard his answer in the silence and turned away, but that action pained him so much he drew her back; and they dated all summer long, though Bill lived with the uneasy awareness that he only palely reflected her love for him. He met Rachel Pulaski in a psychology class at the U two years later, and whether it was the class or perhaps, for the first time, love, he felt they understood one another perfectly. They studied together in the mornings; he picked her up after work at the campus bookstore; at night she curled against him, and the days passed so quickly that their senior spring was a shock. Bill remembered how serious everyone had become when they realized they were about to be cast out into the world, how they all clung together like lost children. Most of his friends who were couples moved to Chicago, where they stayed together long enough to meet other people -- not necessarily new lovers, but people interesting and different enough that those who had been comforting now choked. It happened to him and Rachel in Springfield, too. She'd gotten married a few years ago. And since then he’d only dated a few women with any regularity: no great passions, no undying romance.

What did all these affairs have in common? What he remembered most were beginnings and endings, when the love and the pain and the awkwardness were all at their worst. He either didn’t know the woman and what to say to catch her interest, or they had run out of things to talk about and reasons to be together. The middles faded into a kind of hazy contentment. Bill tried to pull something specific out of the haze and remembered this:

A party in his friend Philip’s second-story apartment. Loud, raucous, wild, drunken – Rachel hadn’t wanted to come. They stood on opposite sides of the room all evening, conscientiously ignoring one another: The one who made the first move lost. Most of the drunk people left or fell asleep. Someone put on an Aretha Franklin album. And at the first notes of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” he looked at her and saw her looking at him. The song had always been one of their favorites, and the look softened as they remembered that fact; it warmed as he crossed the room to her, and then her forehead was warm against his neck and his hands met at the hard dent of her spine. Voices clattered in the kitchen, bottles clinked and Aretha wailed, but they swayed together in the darkness till the song ended, and left without saying a word.

Thirteen years later, that silence filled him with awe. It was silence he feared now more than anything else; it signalled his failure to speak, an inability to communicate. But then words hadn’t been missing: they hadn’t been necessary. It was worth the other silence to have that, he thought.

And Jack and Rita didn’t know that. Rita had actually been married once, to a real jerk who yelled and pushed her around until she forgot what understanding and peace were. This was the ninth date Jack’s sister had set up for him in two months: The first eight had been overtalkative idiots – White Sox fans, even – and he didn’t expect much out of this one. To build a relationship out of such characters and circumstances… There was perhaps one way in the universe it could work.

Bill knew what it was. He placed his fingers on the keys and wrote the first line: “Jack didn’t want to do it.” The line that had to follow explained what and why, but not until he introduced Rita in the next section would his reader – Sarah – know who. The language flowed. Sometimes he stopped long enough to rephrase a sentence or find a more specific word, but otherwise it was like falling in love: an intense awareness of only one thing in the world, a total commitment to whatever might happen next. The sunlight slanting through the blinds turned from white to gold.

Squid squid squid squid squid squid squid squid

Squid squid.

I am pleased to report that last Friday, I received my first submissions envelope marked "SQUID"! And I've received four or five more in the week hence. I have no idea what the mailroom makes of it, but indeed, it always makes me smile. Yay! Squid!

Brooklyn Arden broke 1,000 visits for the first time ever this week -- 1,102, to be exact. Yay! Squid!

Lastly, I saw a writer use the term "electric-fence moment" in her LJ, which, if I'm not incorrect, was a reference to "Muddles, Morals, and Making It Through."* Bwa ha ha ha! The vocabulary is spreading! It will take over all your authorial BRAINS!




Ahem. Excuse me. Going to post a section of a story now.

* Those of you who have read "Muddles, Morals" might be interested to know that Alyssa just got engaged (yay for her!) . . . which makes me the last unattached female, or perhaps person period, in the Raymore-Peculiar High School Class of 1996. Hrmm.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part III

3. Develop a conflict.

So: Jack and Rita at the Brick Oven Inn – no, just the Brick Oven. Jack would have a thick steak, well done, with a baked potato soaked in butter, asparagus and home-baked bread. (Bill’s stomach rumbled again, but he ignored it.) Rita – Rita would want a salad with honey-mustard, a chicken breast, rice, asparagus, more bread. Would she think the worse of Jack for not watching his diet? But Jack ran two miles every morning. They’d talk about that. Rita did step aerobics. She looked good in Lycra. She was wearing a soft pink shirt and a navy skirt, and beneath that, a white silk teddy with spaghetti straps… Bill stopped his train of thought. He couldn't include that detail on the first date; Jack was a good guy, he waited until at least the second. But was Rita a good girl? Yes, he decided firmly. He didn’t want Sarah to think that all he was interested in was sex. But the longer he sat before the screen, the farther his thoughts strayed from the Brick Oven; and at last he stood up again and paced around his small office.

Maybe what he needed to do first was a warm-up exercise, one of Madame’s short weekly assignments. These were usually a little off-the-wall: “You’re a vegetarian frog. Discuss your dilemma in the first person.” “A priest, a rabbi and an ayatollah sit down in the same train compartment. What happens next?” Bill couldn’t recall the subject of this week’s piece. He looked around for his writing folder; he’d taken it to work on Friday and... it was still there. The building was no doubt locked up for the weekend. There’d be no way he could get in.

Everyone was expected to share at least a sentence during the first five minutes of class. He could simply keep his mouth shut or make something up on the spot, but he realized suddenly that this was the perfect opportunity: He could call Sarah. Besides Madame Markley, she was the only person he knew by name in the class; the phone book listed five Markleys and only one McElderry: She was the obvious choice. Jubilantly, nervously, he punched the keys. It was 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon... She probably wouldn’t be home.


“Sarah? Hi, this is Bill from your short story class. On Sundays?” He felt like he was back in fifth grade, calling a girl for the first time. His palm holding the phone was actually sweating.

“Of course, Bill. How are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” he said in a rush. “And you?”

“Great.” She waited.

“I wanted to ask you about this week’s assignment, the writing exercise. I left my sheet at the office, so I was hoping you could tell me--”

“Sure, just a minute.” He heard her put the phone down. So far, so good, he thought, and tried to make himself relax. Two minutes passed. He worried briefly that she’d forgotten him, but at just that moment she came back on the line.

“Sorry about the wait – it was buried under a pile of books on the sofa. This was our last week of school and the kids were insane, so I’ve been too tired to do much housecleaning.”

“Congratulations on finishing,” he said. “What are you planning to do this summer?”

“Oh, lots of reading and writing, and I’ll go up and see my sister in Michigan, but that’s about it. Here’s the assignment.” She read it off to him – a plot exercise that had to involve a horse-drawn carriage, a bouquet of roses, Britney Spears, and a bomb. He thanked her when he finished writing it down.

“My pleasure. How’s your story coming?”

“Not very well,” he said. “That’s why I needed the assignment – I’m hoping it will jump-start my writing.”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“The assignment?”

“Your story.”

“I, uh, don’t really have that much yet. Just these characters…”

“What are their names?” she said gently.

“Jack and Rita.” He described what he knew about them, omitting the details about Jack’s sex life.

“How did they meet? Through work?”

“Uh… Jack’s sister,” he said, knowing it as he spoke. “She works with Rita.”

“He doesn’t work for CompuMed?”

“That would be easier,” he admitted. “But there’s this arcane policy against employee dating…”

“Ah, but what a conflict,” she said. “Love among the cubicles. Romeo and Juliet meet Dilbert!” They laughed. This was going better than he could have imagined – better even than conversations he had imagined. “But that’s not the story you want to tell,” she continued seriously. “Where do you begin? With their first meeting or first date or what?”

“The first date,” he answered.

“And how will it go?”

"It'll go well," he said. He didn’t want a failed love story.

“Well how?” she asked. “Does she go home with him, do they run off to Vegas, do they just decide to go out again a week later?” He was silent. “What made you decide to write this story?” He couldn’t answer. “What’s your point?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” and he sounded so helpless she laughed.

“All right. Well, that might be a place to begin.” There was a brief pause while he wrote POINT in all caps beneath the instructions for the assignment, then Sarah said, “I’m sorry if I sound condescending, like I know everything about short-story writing. Trust me, I don’t.”

“You know more than I do,” he assured her. “Your response to the assignment last week was really fun.”

“Oh, the White-Out thing? That was a one-off in the fifteen minutes before class. Thanks though.”

“Do you usually write that quickly?”

“The first time through, yeah. I don’t even think about it much – I just have to get it all down.”

"I can’t do that," he said. "I think it's because I work so much with technical material -- every detail has to be perfect, so I can’t stand to have anything out of place.”

“Really? Maybe I ought to try that, given what Madame said about my last story.” The bitterness in her voice surprised him, and he didn’t know how to respond, especially since he had thought it was a great piece. Maybe he had no judgment in these things and his own story was going to crash and burn. He could hear her waiting for him to speak, and he knew what he wanted to say – “Are you free tonight? Do you have any plans for tomorrow?” – but that might sound like he wasn’t taking her confidence about writing seriously, and what if he asked her out for tomorrow night and she accepted and then heard his story and didn’t want to go? The awkwardness, the excuses. He could see nothing but disaster, already beginning with this silence and getting worse and worse...

“Well, I guess I better let you go,” she said.

He was both disappointed and relieved. “It’s back to the computer for me.”

“That’s right. Good luck with it.”

“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part II

2. Know your setting.

All right. The characters were there. He stared at the screen. Nothing happened. He flexed his fingers a few times. No burst of inspiration struck. He closed his eyes, envisioning Rita and Jack, sitting silent on either side of a table somewhere...

His stomach rumbled.

Relieved, he stood up and passed through the apartment to the kitchen. The refrigerator light glared in his eyes: milk, some Colby Jack, two bottles of Leiney’s, a globe of lettuce. What he really wanted was a steak, but all he had was lunch meat. He pulled out turkey, mayonnaise and the lettuce, made a sandwich and sat down at the table for two.

Jack and Rita would go to the Deer Park Inn, except he couldn’t call it that. He pictured the restaurant’s rough-hewn walls and the stone fireplace roaring with flame. The Old Stone Inn. The Brick Oven Inn. No, just the Brick Oven. They’d get a table by the fireplace – it was January, so they could talk over what they did for the holidays. Jack just moved into a new apartment, one of those shiny condos with two bedrooms and a balcony. He bought himself a sofa and a dining room table for Christmas, but the place was still pretty empty. "I bet it's beautiful," Rita said with a smile; and Jack wondered if that meant he could ask her back to see it.

He wouldn’t mind bringing Sarah here, Bill thought as he swallowed the last of his sandwich. It was a nice apartment -- an old building, unlike Jack's, but that gave it character. He looked around. White counters and cabinet; a white fridge on the stained pine floor; his old-but-friendly speckled Formica table, two pale yellow vinyl chairs. The early afternoon sun glared in the window. The whiteness reflected endlessly off itself; the back of the chair opposite was pushed firmly up to the table. The kitchen clock ticked. Everything was quiet.

Bill stood up abruptly and went back to his desk.

Fun Procrastination Miscellany

Note: If you're one of my authors and supposed to be working on a manuscript for me, you are not allowed to read this post. Go WORK. You know who you are.

[sound of whip cracking -- but it's a loving, supportive whip]

For the rest of you:

Make David Bessler dance! (Hint: Button A is "Staying Alive," B is "Sorry Ms. Jackson," and F is "Footloose.")

Want to do something to save the earth? The WorldWatch Institute has a behind-the-stuff guide to common objects like chocolate, cell phones, and paper, highlighting their environmental impact, cool facts (did you know "the Gutenberg Bible, the first and second drafts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the original works of Mark Twain were all printed on hemp-based papers"?), and what you can do to help the environment via these things. If An Inconvenient Truth hasn't come your way, this is a good start.

(Yes, I'm going to be harping on this. Just call me Feral Cheryl.)

Make a map of all the states you've visited!

(Link courtesy of Jeremiah.) I don't think I've been to Montana, Idaho, South Carolina, or West Virginia, unless it was on some family vacation I've forgotten . . . Mom? You want to chime in here? And does the train or bus to Boston pass through Rhode Island? I forget.

The Cow Cam, a.k.a. MooTube.

Yum yum, watermelon carving. (Actually, I'm not crazy about watermelons. But if anyone wants to carve a nice McVitie for me, I'll gladly put the picture up here!)

Ten Things Teenager Writers Should Know about Writing (via GraceAnne DeCandido on child_lit, via Diane Duane's blog)

An article on Quiz Bowl featuring the most noble Rob Hentzel of NAQT (who is married to my excellent former teammate Dr. Emily Pike -- we won the undergraduate national championship in 1999, along with Steve Jenkins and Andy Felton). The author of the article doesn't seem to quite get the concept of love of the game, which is curious, as the game is an addiction and he used to play; but it does reveal the wonderfully passionate world of quiz bowl.

An online petition for rational believers: Christians Against Pat Robertson Speaking (gacked from R. J. Anderson)

My cousin Diana (princessdi, as she occasionally posts here) and her boyfriend Dan are in Germany right now for the World Cup. They aren't going to see any games in person -- rather they're going to hang out in bars in Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands whenever teams from those countries are playing. It sounds like an awesome trip -- prost, Diana and Dan!

Monday, June 12, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part I

I wrote this my senior year of college for an Advanced Creative Writing class, and I came across it again when cleaning out some files while I was home. It is very, very far from deep, original, or good, but I thought it might amuse you all to see it, as it proves I'm such an editorial dork that I can't even write fiction without talking about plot structure! This is part one of five.

1. Establish your characters.

He’d always enjoyed short stories -- Hemingway, Kipling, Ray Bradbury. And he’d written a little bit in college, though that was a long time ago. But Bill had to admit it: When he signed up for creative writing through the university’s extension program, he was doing it to meet women. And now that he had to produce a real story for tomorrow’s session … well, he wondered seriously if even Sarah was worth it.

Yeah, she was, he thought gloomily. Or would be, if he’d ever have the nerve to ask her out. But that was tomorrow’s problem; today, he had to focus on the story.

He sat down at his PC and considered Madame Markley’s instructions from the previous period. “Write what you know,” she said, “but make it new, make it different. If your characters are you they’re boring” – which he thought was a little harsh. “We know you. But if you can take some little spark of yourself and make it live in a character, something nobody knows about – ah!” She flung her arms wide to indicate epiphany. “Reveal yourself. Think about your emotions.”

Bill thought about Sarah. He’d noticed her for the first time when she wrote a story about a father and daughter attending a ball game at Wrigley Field. It was pretty good – not perfect, but definitely something there – and he stopped by her desk after class to tell her so. She raised her heart-shaped face, usually hidden by a mass of honey-brown hair, and he was immediately aware of her youth (though he’d later learned she was twenty-eight), her beauty, his own thinning pate. “I enjoyed your story,” he said without stammering. “You a Cubbies fan?”

“Cards,” she said cheerfully. “Remember? The Cubs lost.”

For a moment he was taken aback, then he grinned. “That’s right,” he said. “The birds got lucky in the eighth. Well, everything except that – I enjoyed your story.”

“Thanks.” She returned the smile, then her hair curtained her face again as she bent to pick up a pen beneath her desk. Bill shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. She was digging for something in her purse -- her car keys? He couldn't tell. He felt like an idiot just standing there.

"Well," he said, "see you next class."

A flash of surprised polite smile -- she'd forgotten him. "Yes," she said. "Next Sunday."

But miracle of miracles, that next Sunday she'd taken the desk by his; and the miracle happened again the Sunday after that. He found out that her story was based on a real trip to Wrigley when she was ten; that she lived in an apartment complex on the edge of town; that she taught third grade and had an older sister named Annie; that she’d written half of a novel and four kids’ books, none of which had been published. Bill told her about his own experiences at Wrigley and Busch, his job as a technical writer, the time he and his sister Lisa ran away to Chicago (he had been seven, Lisa five, and they only made it two miles down the highway before the cops picked them up). He made jokes and didn't think he bored her. Still, each time he nearly got up the nerve to ask her for coffee, an uneasy silence fell into the conversation or she turned away to get something, her hair as implacable and thick as a wall between them.

Now the story rotation had come round to his group, the last, and what better part of his character to reveal than his deep-down lonelyhearts, his inborn romantic? He would write a love story.

A love story. Bill cracked his knuckles to warm them up and thought about the people he wanted. The guy first. Jack, he’d call him. Jack traveled a lot, because he was in sales. Computers – software mostly, with the occasional peripheral. Jack was Catholic and thirty-four, like Bill. He liked the Bulls and the Raiders, also like Bill. He drank hard liquor and slept with fast women. No. He drank Rolling Rock and waited until the second or third date. Better. Jack was – Bill squinted at his computer screen – blond, with a full head of hair. He exercised regularly. He was a good guy. Bill typed this out quickly before he forgot it.

And his female character -- Rita. Did people still name their daughters Rita? he wondered. It was a name he’d always liked, a fiesta in four letters. Rita was in her early thirties, petite, a computer programmer. She got her CS degree from the U and now worked for a medical software company – CompuMed, though she was bored and wanted to move elsewhere. She enjoyed hiking and rock music and ballroom dancing: and she grew, smart-mouthed and dark-haired, in his mind. Neither Jack nor Rita had ever been married. He lived downtown and liked Stanley Kubrick movies. She was out by the river and preferred Woody Allen. (Bill also preferred Woody Allen, but he’d take Scorsese over anyone else.) They both rooted for the Cubs -- hopeless romantics, for sure.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Instructions for the Day

I don't normally post at 12:30 on a Saturday night, but I just came back from the movies, and you all need to do this right now:

  1. Go to or or whatever service you use to find movies and showtimes.
  2. Find the closest theatre showing An Inconvenient Truth.
  3. Figure out the next time you can attend a screening.
  4. Gather your spouse, your kids ages 10 and up, your coworkers, your students, your friends from church, your friends from your writing group . . . yep, pretty much everyone you know.
  5. All of you: Go see it.

I am 100% not kidding about this. It is the nonfiction Movie of the Year, fascinating, devastating, and energizing in equal measure. It is sobering and scary in its demonstration of the causes of global warming and the consequences if we don't do something about it. It is moving in its depiction of Mr. Gore's personal odyssey, and political only because it has to be, because this is a problem that must be solved by whole countries as well as individuals, and we have the wrong stupid individuals leading this country right now. (It's almost physically painful to watch the documentary footage of Gore in Florida in 2000, conceding to that idiot . . . one of the great turning points in U.S. history, and we turned the absolute worst way possible.) (There's a hilarious and sadly true editorial about the morality of assassinating Bush in this month's Harper's -- thanks to Ben for pointing me to it.)

In fact, this is the film Fahrenheit 9/11 ought to have been, except Michael Moore's ego, anger, and bombasticity got in the way of his making the cogent war-on-terrorism anti-Administration argument that Gore makes environmentally here. And while it's very much a one-man show, it convinced me both of Mr. Gore's deep apolitical passion for the subject -- he's been following global warming since he studied it in college -- and of his equally honest humility -- never does the film say that that college was Harvard, or allude to any of his accomplishments in office that aren't connected to climate change.

Finally, it's the only film I've seen in the last . . . I don't know how long, maybe ever, that will genuinely change my life. Not just my emotional or mental life, as great films like Head On or Before Sunset made me consider who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live; but my physical life, the day-to-day choices I make about transport and light bulbs and where I buy my groceries. Those are exactly the changes the film wants to make me make; its great success is that I want to make them too.

And I want you to make them too. So go see it, please. And let's get started.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

On Potter and Publishing

An eighth-grade girl recently e-mailed me through my website to ask a few questions about Harry Potter and being an editor. I thought the answers might interest you, and so:

1. What exactly was your role in publishing the Harry Potter series?

I serve as continuity editor for the Harry Potter series in the United States. In practice this means I am the chief copyeditor for the series: I do my best to make sure that the hundreds of magical names, places, spells, objects, etc. that come up in Ms. Rowling’s universe are spelled or used correctly every single time they appear, and when we’re working on a new book, I oversee the U.S. copyediting process and the other copyeditors and proofreaders who work on the book.

2. Did you get to work directly with the author, J. K. Rowling, on publishing her books?

My boss, Arthur A. Levine, works directly with Ms. Rowling.

3. How long have you been working at Arthur A. Levine Books and have you enjoyed your time spent working there?

I’ve worked there for almost six years now, since September 2000, and I really love it, yes!

4. Have you always dreamed of being an editor in a successful publishing company like the one in which you currently work?

Until I was a junior in high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. But then I realized that I really preferred reading to cutting things up, so I looked for a career that would let me read all the time, and I decided I wanted to be an editor. So the answer to your question is “Yes,” if “always” begins with my junior year. :-)

5. What exactly is your role as the editor? What responsibilities do you have?

An editor has three main responsibilities:

  • When authors or agents send us manuscripts, we choose the ones that we think should be published, and we convince the publishing company to buy them.
  • Once they’re bought, we work with the authors to make them the best books they can be . . . sometimes changing the story or characterizations, sometimes cutting unnecessary developments or words, sometimes just correcting spelling and so on . . .
  • And then we work with all the other parts of the company (design, marketing, sales) to make the book as beautiful and saleable as it can be, and then to get the word out and hopefully make it a bestseller.

6. Are there any drawbacks to your job as an editor in a publishing company?

It’s frequently quite stressful. And lots and lots of authors send me manuscripts, so I’m always behind in my reading.

7. How do you decide which books to publish and which to reject?

I look for books with wonderful characters and interesting stories, revealed through atmospheric language and with emotional meaning.

8. What other popular books or authors have you worked with?

I work with Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time; Kate Constable, author of the lovely Chanters of Tremaris fantasy trilogy; Saxton Freymann, a food sculptor who has created How Are You Peeling?, Fast Food, and Food for Thought, among others; and Senator Ted Kennedy and Caldecott Medalist David Small, on My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C. I also edit many translations from foreign languages.

9. What books have been your favorite to work with and publish? And why?

This is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child! That said, probably Millicent Min, Girl Genius, because it was the first novel I was involved with in any meaningful way and I learned so much working on it. (And it paid off fantastically—it’s a terrific book!)

10. Which Harry Potter book has been your favorite publishing so far?

I’ve only worked on two—Half-Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix—and I think I’d say Order, because it was the first one I was involved with and there’s so much great, rich, painful stuff in it.

11. What has been the most interesting moment you have had while publishing the Harry Potter books?

I met J. K. Rowling when she was here on a publicity tour in 2000; Arthur introduced me as his new assistant, and she took my copy of Prisoner of Azkaban and signed it, “To Cheryl—no doubt you will soon be sick of my name. J. K. Rowling.” :-)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Evening Observations

The last time I bought a bedside lamp was in 1987, at the Montgomery Ward Outlet in Grandview, Missouri. It was brass, with a long thin gooseneck and a metal half-shade shaped like a shell, and it's sat by my beds and blessed my reading for nineteen years, through a million changes, in Missouri, Minnesota, and New York.

Until tonight.

I started looking for a new lamp three or four years ago, to soften the light and make a change. I looked at Tiffany-style lamps (at Tiffany-style prices) in the lighting stores on the Bowery; I fell in love with a tree lamp from Eddie Bauer, which they discontinued before I decided to buy; I thought seriously about a lamp with the Brooklyn Bridge on the shade.

And tonight I took the uptown 6 to the Crate & Barrel on 59th and picked up my new lamp. As I walked across town to Ninth Avenue, I passed the Plaza Hotel, which is now being converted into condominiums. I looked at this and realized, "Some little girl is going to live there and really be Eloise." I hope to God she has better parents.

Then I sat in Central Park and read this week's New Yorker, which features an absolutely devastating and necessary collection of essays, letters, and journal entries from soldiers and medical officers in Iraq. It's not online, alas, so if you've never picked up a New Yorker in your life, this is the week. George W. Bush has a lot to answer for.

Then I had dinner with Jimmy, which was nice as always. At one point I was telling him about Zadie Smith's On Beauty (which is wonderful, wonderful, a thousand times wonderful), and I said, "It's just like Howard's End," and he looked confused and said, "What does it have to do with Howard Zinn?" And actually, that is exactly what the book is: Howard's End by way of Howard Zinn.

Say "Howard's End by Howard Zinn" five times fast, I dare you.

After Jimmy and I said goodbye, I got on the C train to come home. As I was finishing up the New Yorker, noisy footsteps slapped down the car; I lifted my head slightly at the sound, and the footsteps stopped in front of me. The man was tall, thin, wearing flip-flops and long silver track pants, and carrying a see-through tote bag over one t-shirted arm. "Do you have a dollar I can have to buy some junk food?" he said, staring at me as he swayed with the train.

I never know what to do in situations like these. The MTA says you should turn panhandlers down and give money to reputable organizations like City Harvest. Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Jesus usually trumps the MTA for me, and here I liked his pants and he was honest, so I gave him the dollar. "Thanks," he said over his shoulder as he slapped on into the next car, and I ducked my head with the embarrassment of having and giving.

At Jay Street I transferred to the F. When I sat down, the middle-aged black man next to me, wearing a hoodie, Yankees cap, jeans, and white sneakers, was reading Marian Keyes's Sushi for Beginners, which made me smile.

It has been a strange week. Enormously productive, and with the rhythms of my life restored to what they ought to be: a good 60/40 balance between work and life, rather than 80/20, as much of this spring felt. I cooked, I read, I sent an editorial letter, I saw friends, I exercised. But it has been raining endlessly, and the song haunting my head has been Lyle Lovett's "North Dakota," from his "Live in Texas" album, and its melancholy, its sweetness, its thinking about love and time passing have shaped and suited my mood.

If you love me say I love you
If you love me, take my hand
If you love me say I love you
If you love me, take my hand
And you can say I love you
And you can have my hand . . .

At home I took my golden gooseneck off my bedside table, unwrapped the balcony lamp from layers of plastic and cardboard and styrofoam, assembled it and plugged it in.

-- picture of lamp will go here when Blogger allows me to upload images again --

It is a change. I am not sure I like the change, or that the lamp is in tune with the rest of my bright and undignified apartment. But I am going to live with it awhile and see how I feel: make a decision, and carry on the way.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

"Miracle Fair," by Wislawa Szymborska

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it's backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

-- translated by Joanna Trzeciak in the collection Miracle Fair

Monday, June 05, 2006

More Literary Fun with Spam

One of these is from the first page of Finnegans Wake; one is spam. Can you tell the difference?

A. If penultimate, not preempt. Some sandburg slippery, rejuvenating. Some loam. Seamen on state. A snake, a columbine: try bicarbonate, see, despise. Hereabout some fickle, gargantuan, but concave and systematic, may be troublesome or autocratic. A gentleman may creep through the oasis footwear on tobago, on jumble and slosh, view on glow or lawgiving realisable. Some easygoing, in moist reuben. Moliere?

B. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. The fall(bababadalgharaghtakamminarronn-konnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhoun-awnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Submissions Site, Sid, and Splash with the Sox

I just updated my website with a page of Submissions Guidelines and What I'm Looking For. Thanks to all of you writers who chimed in earlier with comments on this topic.

David LaRochelle's Absolutely, Positively Not . . . won the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from the SCBWI (just two years after Lisa carried it off for Millicent Min, Girl Genius). Some people still made a stab at restricting its distribution -- but the awesome John Coy was on the case.

And My Senator and Me was featured on the scoreboard at Fenway Park!: Books at the Ballpark.

(Incidentally, the title link above is for the page on My Senator and Me, and many of the one-star reviews there are -- I want to say "astounding" in their vitriol, but given our current level of political discourse, "typical" might be the right word. In any case, they don't bother me because they're so obviously reviewing the man and not the book.)