Thursday, December 20, 2007

Enough With the "Just Write Good Content" Nonsense Already

Yeah, I said that out loud.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might be surprised to hear me challenging the "just write good content" mantra. After all, I'm a writer. I believe in good content, I try to maintain high standards and I'm a very vocal proponent of the idea that artificially constructed obstacles should be roundly ignored.

I know where the "it's all about content" school of thought came from, and it was an honorable place. In the early days of search engine optimization (SEO)--or what once passed for it--there was a theory that things like writing meaningless strings of relevant key words would do the trick. Eventually, someone noticed that it didn't do a lot of good to bring people to your website if there wasn't anything there for them when they arrived, and search engine algorithms started to take that kind of thing into account, and the next thing we knew, you needed to actually have something to say if you wanted to run a successful website.

Thank God.

And then the pendulum shifted. Thousands of people came out of the woodwork to declare "content is king".

And it's still going on.

The problem is, something like realistic balance has come into the world and no one noticed.

There are still people devoting full-time hours to gaming the SEO system instead of producing content anyone wants to see. And on the other end of the spectrum there are people spouting platitudes about how "all you have to do" is write good content.

The fact that you need worthwhile content to keep bringing people back to your website is a no-brainer. It's not even worth talking about anymore. I don't use language like this lightly, but...well, duh.

Is that enough?

Well, let's look at some other scenarios. If you're a great mechanic, do you print up business cards and put an ad in the local newspaper and commission an attention-catching sign for your shop, or do you say, "All you have to do is do good work" and then sit around and wait for people to notice that you're there?

If you're a writer in a context besides blogging, do you produce good content and then save it to your hard drive and move on with your life, confident that since you're writing good content, agents and publishers will eventually find you?

The backlash against promotion without substance has gone too far, into a kind of "popular wisdom" that advocates substance without promotion. And that brings us back to my initial point, to the headline on this post: NONSENSE

You need good content. But the best content in the world won't do you a darned bit of good if you don't know how to--and don't make the effort to--get people to look at it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Another Rerun

I'm re-posting this post from April of 2004 because...le plus ca change...

Just a few minutes ago, I happened upon a discussion on Blog Catalog about the credibility of people blogging about making money when they weren't making any money and I recalled this post that I'd written three and a half years ago. Only the forum, it seems, changes.

Writing about Writing about Writing (April, 2004)

I've found a cutting edge way to make money as a writer. After generations of writers struggled to make a living, the current generation of professional writers has found a steady stream of income in writing about writing--instructional and inspirational articles that tell other writers how to write, how to sell, how to choose markets, how to query, how to land clients, and how to get rich and famous. At the relatively small-scale end are magazines and websites upon magazines and websites offering advice to beginning writers, often purchased from writers just one small step up the food chain from those beginners.

Many of these, especially the online versions, pay $25/article. This leaves me asking myself: Do I want to accept career advice from writers who are still selling their work for $25?

After all, at $25/article, a writer would have to sell 20 articles each and every week of the year in order to earn $26,000/year. That's more than a thousand articles a year. For those thousand articles, the writer would earn the equivalent of $12.50/hour at a full time job--assuming that she could crank out those 20 articles in a 40 hour week.

Of course, there's bigger money marketing tips for writers on a larger scale. Writers like Peter Bowerman have seen great success marketing books like The Well Fed Writer. However, Bowerman, a successful copywriter, openly admits that the bulk of his income comes not from marketing copywriting services as he describes in the book, but from sales of the book.

If these writers are making their livings not so much by writing alone but by writing about writing, I've discovered a pure and untapped market that is sure to bring me fame and fortune: writing about writing about writing. That's right, I've decided to write a book explaining how to make big money writing books about how to make big money writing. Between you and me, though, I wouldn't buy it. After all, no one paid me to write this article at all, and at that rate you'll never hit the six-figure mark.

Once in a Very Great While, I Wish that I Had a Personal Blog

I've got a writing blog (you're there), a dog blog, as social/legal commentary blog, a search terms humor blog and a Catholic blog, but I don't have a personal blog--that blog where people include photographs of their children after they've managed to fingerpaint the household pets and such--and I rarely have need for one. But every once in a while, something happens that I want to write about.

It's never something big and compelling. It's never, frankly, something that WARRANTS writing down. And that's a good thing, because if it did, I'd probably start another blog...that's what I usually do when I have something to say that doesn't fit any of my existing blogs. Fortunately, so far, it's always been something you really don't want to hear about.

Yesterday, for instance, I was halfway across the parking lot at the train station when I noticed that I was wearing two different shoes.

Now, I'm not especially fashion conscious and it's not all that unusual for me to get to work and realize that I never changed into the shoes I planned to wear--my basic black flats see a lot of action no matter what I'm wearing. But this...well, when I showed them to my 11-year-old last night she said, "How do you make a mistake like that?"

Darned if I know. I was in a hurry. It was semi-dark in my bedroom when I put my shoes on. That MIGHT explain how I failed to notice that they were two different colors. And that one was plain and the other had a little pattern stamped in it. And know....THEY WERE TWO DIFFERENT COLORS.

But what about the fact that one of them has a bit of a heel and the other doesn't?

Yep, that's right. My shoes weren't just two different colors and styles,but one was flat and the other a low heel.

But don't worry. I noticed as soon as I got to the train station. After I'd, you know, walked out to the car (bright sunlight), cleaned the ice off the car, driven my daughter to my mother's house, walked up to the house, walked back to the car, driven to the train station and walked the block or so to the train station parking lot.

This is what I saw when I finally looked down:

Of course, the moment I noticed, it became difficult to walk in one flat shoe and one low heel.

Although I hesitate to admit just how far outside the fashion loop I am, had it just been color I would probably have ignored it and gone on with my life. But the whole not being able to walk thing was starting to bug me, so on my way to work I stopped in Old Navy. I didn't really think that Old Navy sold shoes, but it's down the block from my office, and Macy's doesn't open until ten.

I bought some little black canvas ballet slippers that were too flat for the pants I had on and not really seasonal, but matched my clothes (and each other) and had the added advantage the same height. The fact that they were lightweight canvas slip-ons didn't seem to be a big deal...

While I was at work, this happened:

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Rick Springfield: A Lifetime in Music Ltd. Collector's Edition

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I'm not really interested in turning my blogs into money-making ventures. I'm posting information about and an opportunity to purchase the small number of remaining copies of the limited collector's edition of Rick Springfield: A Lifetime in Music here for one reason: I still get emails from people asking how they can get it, and I haven't gotten around to getting a website set up. That means that currently the only option is ebay, and I don't like to offer things for sale exclusively on ebay because people end up paying too much in auctions.

I've included a little (and hopefully discreet) Buy Now button on the home page of this blog, simply to have a place to direct people who inquire. Not, of course, that it will break my heart if the occasional other visitor decides to purchase one.

Having done that, though, I realized that there wasn't adequate space to provide any real information about the book, so that's what this post is all about.

The limited collector's edition of Rick Springfield: A Lifetime in Music is a small (100 page) spiral bound book formatted for display. It's printed on 80 pound paper and contains numerous black and white photographs, many of which had never been published before. The book is based on interviews with many musicians, music writers and music-industry professionals who worked with Rick over a period of nearly four decades, including:

Rick Springfield
Beeb Birtles (founding member of the original Little River Band and former Zoot bandmate)
Darryl Cotton (former Zoot bandmate and Australian musician and television star)
Keith Howland (Chicago guitarist and former Springfield touring guitarist)

Michele "Mitch" O'Driscoll (Go-Set Magazine correspondent)

Jeff Joseph (former Zoot manager)

John Kennedy (former Icy Blues bandmate and inspiration for the 1983 song "Me & Johnny")
...and many more

Click on the Rick Springfield: A Lifetime in Music tab at the top of the page to order!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So I've Probably Suggested a Time or Two...

That you check out Barb Cooper's So the Thing Is... blog. Today, I want to suggest something entirely different. Today, I think that you should visit The Rising Blogger and check out Barb's award-winning post there. Then, of course, you are free to click through and read the rest of Barb's blog, as set forth in my earlier promotional posts.

Seriously, all this warm, fuzzy "look, my friend won this award!" stuff aside, The Rising Blogger has a great idea, picking out individual posts rather than blogs and shining the spotlight right on the best writing. There's some other good stuff there, too. After Barb's post.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Oops, Make that Four...No, Five...

I just discovered yet another meme I'd been tagged with during my brief (at least, *I* thought it was brief!) absence, and this one is a double from PetLvr. It's actually ten days old, but since I just found out about it this evening it should really be at the end of the list. I'm bumping it up because, frankly, it's the easiest one.

Dane Morgan tagged me with a great meme about a week ago--one of the best I've seen and one that definitely goes beyond the fun "share a little personal information" of most memes. But it's taking more work--I've actually been working on my answers during my evening commute. And Peter's meme itself isn't hard, but he put me to shame with his illustrations and made me want to invest a little more--and I definitely lack the technical skills to follow his example. So those are still to come.

So on to today's double: First, three things I couldn't get through the day without. Interestingly, I saw this meme on someone else's blog a few weeks ago and thought that there really weren't THINGS I couldn't get through the day without, but as soon as I saw PetLvr's post this evening, the first item on this list flashed into my mind.

1. 51 minutes of extra sleep on the morning train. As a single mom with a somewhat-more-than-full-time job and a 3.25 hour a day round-trip commute, it's pretty rare for me to consistently squeeze out five hours of sleep a night. That extra almost-hour on the morning train is critical.

2. Bathing. The instructions specified that we were to overlook the obvious, but this isn't about being clean. Water is essential to my psychological well-being. I can take a quick shower if I have to, but half an hour in the bathtub with a novel is as restorative for me as a week at a spa--I can't fairly say I couldn't get through the day without it, but you'll like dealing with me a lot better if I get it.

3. Hugs and kisses from my daughter. I know...I know...she's almost twelve and I'm going to have to get over this one pretty soon. But I've been lucky so far and I'm holding on for dear life.

The second piece asked about the music in our "players". Since I'm old and not technologically inclined, that means a CD changer or my computer--no i-anythings or MPwhatevers here. Rick Springfield's 1999 CD, Karma, is definitely at the top of my "most listened to" list (and I'll bet you didn't even know it existed). Other frequent appearances include Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, Olivia Newton-John's Back to Basics (but I always skip "Physical"), Bruce Springsteen's The River, The Very Best of Rod Stewart, Maggie Brandon's You Come to Me , U2 War and Bruce Cockburn's Stealing Fire.

I'm holding off on tagging for the moment because I've got a few more of these to get through in the next couple of days, but keep an eye out...I'm going to shuffle and send them right back at you!

While I was Away...

It's been a busy couple of weeks, and now that it's Saturday morning and I'm sitting down at the computer with a little sliver of time on my hands for the first time in many days, I discover that most of my friends and acquaintances have made good use of the intervening weeks me with memes right and left.

I'm going to answer them all. Really, I am.

The most recent one comes from Barb at So the Thing Is..., but she gets to cut, so I'm starting there, even though this looks like a LOT of questions...

1. What were you afraid of as a child? Spiders. When I was about four, I told my mother there was a spider on her back and she told me to knock it off; I was too afraid to touch it, it bit her, and she went into anaphalaxis and nearly died. Ironically, this created in me a fear of spiders that ran so deep that my allergic mother had to run around killing them for me. It was so paralyzing that if I saw a spider on the wall, I was a virtual captive unless someone could hear me calling, because I could neither kill it nor let it out of my sight.

2. When have you been most courageous? Generally, I would not say that I'm a courageous person. The few instances I might point to are, alas, confidential (as they arose in my legal practice). I did once pluck a spider off of my daughter's shirt with my bare hands, though.

3. What sound most disturbs you? Sadly, the human voice. I can get used to almost anything regular--my daughter has mentioned more than once that I don't seem to hear things like her mice running on their wheel or the noise my computer makes, and it's true--but the constant variance in tone and volume that comes when people are TALKING intrudes into my brain like knives.

4. What is the greatest amount of physical pain you’ve been in? Unbelievably, it's a toss up between labor (wherein I screamed at regular intervals for fourteen hours) and when I broke my molar. Actually, I think the broken tooth was worse, because the pain level was pretty similar, but contractions come and go and that just went on and on and on.

5. What’s your biggest fear for your children? (or children in general if you don’t have some of your own.) Some sudden harm from an uncontrollable outside force. There's so much to worry about with children, but the nagging fears-out-of-nowhere are always random accidental violences that might occur outside my presence: What if she gets hit by a car? What if she falls from the top of those monkey bars and gets paralyzed or brain damaged? What if those chemicals they're using in science splash in her eyes?

6. What is the hardest physical challenge you’ve achieved? I don't do physical. Seriously. So I guess it would have to be childbirth--though I tried to wuss out of that, too, and tell them that I couldn't do it and they'd have to find another way.

7. Which do you prefer: Mountains or oceans/big water? Oceans. Or lakes. Or ponds. Or streams. Or large swimming pools. Or my own bathtub. Mountains are pretty, but water is essential to my mental health.

8. What is the one thing you do for yourself that helps you keep everything together? I'm too busy keeping things together to do anything to help me keep things together.

9. Ever had a close relative or friend with cancer? No. My best friend's mother died of cancer, and she was a gutsy, fun, energetic and generous woman whom he loved like crazy and it was hard as hell to watch her deteriorate and the toll it took on him, but I can't even begin to imagine what it's like that giant step closer.

10. What are the things your friends count on you for? Rationality, I think. I can usually put things in perspective. People who are not my friends often see this as a major character flaw--I'm not likely to get caught up in the emotion of the issue--but those who choose to hang around me seem to appreciate my ability to cut through issues.

11. What is the best part of being in a committed relationship? How the heck would I know?

12. What is the hardest part of being in a committed relationship? See above.

13. Summer or Winter? Why? Winter. Snow. Clean, clear air. Snow. Christmas decorations. Snow.

14. Have you ever been in a school-yard fight? Why and what happened? "Fight" would be the wrong word. I knocked a kid down and hit him once, but he never got a chance to fight back. I was 13, and I was walking across the school yard with my 6-year-old sister when a 12-year-old boy hit her in the head with an ice ball. She cried. I tackled him and slugged him. His mother stood by and watched with her arms folded and didn't say a word.

15. Why blog? Before there were blogs (or personal computers), I used to write whatever came into my mind down on paper and toss it in my desk drawer (and, for the most part, never look back at it). Now I do that here instead.

16. Did you learn about sex, and/or sex safety from your parents? No, I don't think so, but I don't recall there being much mystery or being in any way disadvantaged by having missed that.

17. How do you plan to talk to your kids about sex and/or sex safety? In ongoing dialogue. I don't think that there's much value in "the big talk"--I think it makes kids edgy and they don't take in a whole lot and it's too much information (especially such potentially disconcerting information) to absorb in a lump. I try to address little pieces naturally as they arise in life or books or movies or whatever opening I see, so it's easily digestible and so that it seems a natural topic of conversation that doesn't have to be momentous if she has questions.

18. What are you most thankful for this year? Money. I hate to admit that, and there's a huge irony in it because I don't care all that much about money or material things--I drive a seven-year-old car and still have the stereo my mother bought for me when I was in college in the 80s, and I wouldn't even have a television if someone hadn't given it to me as a gift. But as a single mother who has seen so much in my work (representing victims of domestic violence, attempting to collect child support, running a welfare advocacy clinic) I know how incredibly fortunate I am to be in a position where I never have to say to my daughter, "No, we can't afford that." Well, at least not to any REASONABLE requests.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Associated Content - It Isn't the Only Option

Every once in a while, I see an "advice" post encouraging bloggers to submit articles to Associated Content or an article bank. Associated Content makes some payment for the articles, though it's very small and largely dependent on traffic; most article banks do not.

Now, before I go on, let me just say that there are sometimes good reasons to use outlets like GoArticles or Associated Content--as I've clearly spelled out before, I'm in favor of the dreaded "writing for free" when there's a clear benefit to the writer. You're not going to hear the old arguments from me like, "They make a lot more money than they're paying you!" This isn't a word I use often, but let me say it clearly now: DUH! Magazines make a lot more money than they pay for articles and restaurants make a lot more money than they pay their cooks and if the didn't, they wouldn't be in business.

There are two big issues, though, that bother me every time I see someone in a forum or on a money-making blog or in any of a dozen other places encourage readers to "submit" to Associated Content or article banks. The first is that Associated Content seems to be set up as something to aspire to: if you're a good writer and you have knowledge on a topic (etc., etc.) you should submit to Associated Content!

Maybe it's just me, but I think that if you're a good writer and you have good knowledge to impart and you want to take that beyond your own blog, you should be submitting to established markets that will simply cut you a check when they accept your article and won't expect you to do your own promotion.

I recently posted about a quick sale I made after discovering a new online magazine. As I mentioned then, it wasn't a high dollar sale by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it would have taken tens of thousands of views to achieve the same income from an Associated Content article, and I wouldn't have come away with a published clip for my portfolio.

There have always been far too many reasons (read: rationalizations) for writers not to submit their work, and the Associated Content compromise looks like just one more. If you write well and you know what you're talking about but you're not a "real writer", here's a great option for you! Nonsense. If you write well and you know what you're talking about, you're a real writer.

Again, that doesn't mean there's no good reason to use Associated Content or article banks--there are some good reasons, provided you have clear goals and know how to use them effectively. But if you're producing good content for your blog and want to "get published" in other forums, there are many other options. If you're not so sure, just Google a phrase like "online magazine writers guidelines". That one (without the quotes) returns more than 1.8 million results--and many of them are direct links to submission guidelines for paying publications you probably don't even know exist.

If you are going to submit to Associated Content or a similar outlet, make sure that you have a clear vision. That vision should include not only your goals for placing that content, but your plan for achieving them. Understand that simply submitting an article to Associated Content or an article bank is very unlikely to drive significant traffic to your blog or to generate significant income for you. Your article will be competing with thousands of others, likely many others on the same topic. No one is going to market it for you--if you want it to pay off (in links or cash), you must be prepared to promote it yourself. You can do that, and do it very effectively if you do your homework and plan ahead, but don't think that simply submitting an article to Associated Content or an article bank is going to magically produce results for you. Whatever marketing approach you choose, someone has to do the legwork...and with outlets like these, that someone is you.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Freelance Writing Like It Should Be

The truth is, I'm not even a freelancer anymore. I made my living for many years stringing for newspapers and selling articles and copywriting for the occasional small business and writing curriculum for the occasional very large one, but those days are gone. I have a fabulous day job now, where I write / edit / manage content full time.

Still, a writer is a writer is a writer, and so sometimes writing and editing fifty hours a week at my day job and maintaining four blogs just ain't enough. That's why I always have a novel or two in progress, and also why I sometimes still bang out the occasional freelance article in my (non-existent) spare time.

Last week was one of those times. I was browsing writing blogs when I happened across an online magazine that was unfamiliar to me. It had a regular column in it that sparked an idea. I checked the submission guidelines and discovered that it was open to freelancers, and that the pay was acceptable (though by no means earth shattering). The publication accepted both queries and full submissions.

Now, I've heard many a seasoned writer turn up her nose and say, "I don't write on spec," and it's a reasonable position. Once you've established yourself, there's no reason to do the work if you don't know that you're getting paid, and most editors won't expect you to. Personally, though, I prefer to complete the article before submitting wherever that's feasible. The writing is the good part for me, so I don't have any fear of "wasted" time if it doesn't sell--and odds are there will be another market, anyway. What's more, my writing often takes unexpected turns. I can control it if I have to--if I'm writing an assigned article with a particular focus, for instance. But I'd rather let it flow naturally, and writing the article up front ensures that I'm not pitching an article that turns out not to be the one I want to write.

It was late on Thursday night when I had the idea, and I forced myself to go to sleep even though that idea was just bouncing around inside my brain begging to be written down. On Friday, I wrote the article out by hand on a legal pad during my morning commute. Friday night, after my daughter was asleep, I typed it up and submitted it by email. I got an acceptance by email on Sunday night.

Is it always that easy? Of course not. It happened that I had a story waiting for an opening and the magazine I ran across had the perfect forum for it. Certainly, my previous publications helped. But the thing is, sometimes it is that easy. And sometimes we worry and agonize and question whether this is really exactly right and list ideas and write and rewrite query letters when the thing to do is really just to write it down and send it off and see what happens. Will it sell every time? Of course not. But sometimes it will.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Writing: Whatever Works for You, # 1

In one of the most popular items ever posted on this blog, I offered the opinion that we should all stop listening to the "rules" about what you absolutely must do if you want to be a successful writer and accept that the only thing you absolutely must do is find what works.

The flipside to that, of course, is that no one can offer you the magic formula. You can cheerfully ignore seasoned writers who tell you that you have to outline everything twice, or that you can't write meaningful fiction unless you answer to your character's name for six months, or that if you speak the title of your book aloud, the spell will be broken and you'll have to scrap the whole project and start something entirely new. On the other hand, you also have to invest the time and effort to figure out your own formula for success.

A lot of new writers, however, are reasonably uneasy about ignoring advice from the experts. The "Whatever Works for You" series aims to chase away that fear by demonstrating how consistently the experts disagree. My purpose isn't to show that the experts are wrong--quite the opposite. It's to point out that for every wildly successful writer who says, "NEVER try to write while wearing black socks!" there is another who says, "I'm helpless without my black socks. Couldn't form an English sentence without them."

And guess what? The guy wearing the black socks and the guy making sure there aren't any black socks in the room where he writes both go on to sell their books, get tons of fan mail, and rake in a boatload of money. You can too--even if you never give a moment's thought to your socks.

As I mentioned in an earlier post (or two, or three), I saw Jacquelyn Mitchard speak at the Midwest Literary Festival earlier this month. Despite my constant harping on (um, I mean, commitment to) the idea that no two writers are alike, I was stunned to hear her say that she works out the plots of her novels by talking them through with people in detail.

"What helps me is either to outline it or to tell it to someone."

That one line was enough to leave me aghast. I'm no fan of outlines, but to actually talk about your story before it was written?
I was kind of sputtering internally and mentally saying, "But...but..." while she described how she bounced plot events and character actions off of other people during the creative process.

You see, if I tell a story before I write it, it weakens the story. Once upon a time I wouldn't have been able to write it at all. Time, practice and professional discipline have changed that a bit, but the first telling is the truest, for me, and if I talked a novel through with someone before I committed it to paper, that lucky soul would be the only one who ever heard it in its finest form.

But Jacquelyn Mitchard has written eight best-selling novels, so she must know what she's doing. Does that mean I'm wrong? That maybe if I were a bit more practiced and professional, I'd be able to chat about my novels and incorporate feedback into them while I worked?

I can't rule it out, but in any case I'm in good company. Here's what Louis Sachar, whose young adult novel, Holes, won a Newberry Medal and a National Book Award, has to say:

I never talk about a book until it is finished. It took me a year and a half to write Holes, and I never told anyone anything about it during all that time. I do this for a variety of reasons, but mainly motivation. By not allowing myself to talk about it, the only way I can let it out is to finish writing it.

Sachar's statement shed a little bit of light, for me, on the possible reason that I need to keep a novel to myself until it's actually a novel. Alice Hoffman's explanation is a little bit different. She told the New York Times:

Sometimes I have the urge to talk to Faith [Hoffman's editor], to tell her what I'm thinking, but unless it's down on paper, I don't think I have a strong position. Without writing, without style, what is it? Plus there's a certain point where I feel I wouldn't want to be too influenced by someone else, even Faith.

Just one of the many ways, it seems, that successful writers differ in their process. I believe that's true for virtually every area of writing. I do. I REALLY do.

But it's still something of a relief to me when I discover that an author like Louis Sachar sees it my way.

Friday, October 19, 2007

This Tagging Thing is Getting out of Hand

To be fair, Barb DIDN'T tag me for this one. No, on her blog she made the kind, understanding declaration that she wasn't tagging people because she knew how busy we all were. And then she discretely left a comment here letting me know that I was "on". Actually, the comment came before the disclaimer, but that's probably not pertinent to the story.

The questions are about books, though, so how can we go wrong?

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Paperback to read, hardcover to reverence.

2. If I were to own a book shop, I would call it... probably The House Bookstore, which would probably be trademark infringement or something, and isn't even a very good name for a bookstore. The thing is, there used to be this coffee shop in DeKalb, Illinois called The House, and it was everything a bookstore should be. They served tea in glass pots and had worn sofas and shelves full of donated books, and my sister started the very first House journal, which grew to book after book of notes, random journal entries, sketches and poetry by anyone who passed through the place. If ever you read a book of mine and there's a coffee shop in it, it's The House, even though I'll pretend otherwise, and it will always be warm and softly lit inside and raining or snowing outside the window.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title)... oh, man. I don't know whether I should say it. It's the last line of The Sun Also Rises, and I love it because it puts the whole book in a different perspective, but that also makes it a huge spoiler. Everyone already knows it, right? Well, I'm not taking the chance. If you know what it is then you know what I mean and don't need me to write it down. If you don't, it wouldn't really mean anything to you anyway, right?

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be... Sheldon Vanauken. I discovered Sheldon Vanauken's writing several years after he died, or I would have...err...I believe the phrase "introduced myself" is probably preferable to "stalked him until he consented to converse with me". He was friends with C.S. Lewis, another of my favorite authors, and he'd be MORE than welcome to join us, but if I only get one, it's Vanauken.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be… I answered this question once before by choosing a volume I own that has 49 of Hemingway's short stories and a complete novel in it, but I think that's cheating. This time, I'm going to pick Atlas Shrugged, because it's long, I've read it a couple of times without getting bored, and it might inspire me to remember that I could figure out a way to either get off the island or make it work for me if I remembered who I was. As an added bonus, if I did get bored I could occupy myself endlessly by removing or shifting around the randomly placed commas.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… I would not love someone to invent any bookish gadgets at all. I would like everything but old fashioned books to be abolished.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of... oddly enough, a stranger's basement. When I was in high school I needed a copy of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and couldn't find one at the library or regular bookstore. My mother called a used bookstore listed in the telephone book and it turned out to be a book dealer with aisles and aisles of books, many of them antique, in her basement. I still remember feeling like I'd stumbled into a treasure vault.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title)... Dagny Taggart, of course.

9. The most overestimated book of all times is… That first Anne Rice vampire thing.

10. I hate it when a book… ends. Well, not any book, but when it's a really good book I really don't want to come back up out of it, and it's almost impossible to find something to read next when I've just done a full immersion thing with a book.

I'm not going to tag anyone in this post since it's only been a few days since I hit up 8 people, but watch your comments...I might stealthily come around and invite your participation....

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eight Things

I just discovered that I'd been tagged to tell you all eight things about myself. The writer who tagged me, at Chitchat and All That, listed this as one of her eight things, and I loved it. This is my favorite kind of statement to see from writers!

2. It has always been a dream of mine to have a writing career that would financially and emotionally support me. Recently, I have moved that dream into the goal category and have begun to make an action plan and timeline for it.

I have to warn you, though--unlike my predecessor and her predecessor, I'm not going to try to figure out what I can tell you about myself that won't bore you to tears--my theory is that if you're the sort of person who is bored to tears by the details of someone else's life, you probably aren't reading this.

The struggle for me, though, is that I'm a pretty simple person, and so it always seems likely to me that everyone already knows everything there is to know about me.

Here goes:

1. The most expensive car I've ever owned cost $10,200. That's worked out very well for me. My $10,200 Cavalier and my $8,000 Neon both lasted more than 275,000 miles.

2. I have no interest in strange dogs. I miss my poodle of 17 years like crazy, and my family's various dogs have been like members of the family, but I'm not apt to stop and pet someone else's (or even notice it) on the street.

3. I babysat well into college and was in hot demand because I actually spent all the time doing stuff with the kids and enjoyed it. When I was a teenager, I cut pictures of babies out of magazines. When I was a single adult, I took my friends' kids out to parks and playlands and anywhere else their parents didn't feel like going.

4. I never get rid of anything. I still have clothes I haven't worn in 20 years, shoes that haven't fit me since my daughter was born eleven years ago, and 500 purple envelopes from a project I completed four or five years ago.

5. I love standardized tests.

6. The thing I love most about my job is being in a position to give people the opportunity to write.

7. I lose interest in what I've written as soon as I'm done with it--so much so that sometimes I don't get around to trying to publish it. I don't even have copies of most of my published articles.

8. Every Monday morning when I'm lugging my garbage cans up the hill behind my house at 6 a.m., I wish I was married.

Now, I'm supposed to pass this along to eight other bloggers:

I'll start with my friend Margo at Margo's Meanderings, though I only need seven from her because I just discovered by reading her blog that she went to Gettysburgh, PA in August (we live in Illinois) and I somehow missed the whole thing.

I will SPARE my friend Barb (unless she wants to play) because I don't think she's recovered from coming up with 100 things yet, and because she is as we speak creating gift bags for more than FIFTY children for her daughter's seventh birthday party.

I'd love to hear eight things from Gerri at Absolutely True, because she's such a together person writing about such bizarre events that anything she has to say create a compelling juxtaposition...or she'll surprise me.

Next, Theresa at Sleeping Kitten, Dancing Dog. Theresa has quietly done almost every interesting thing I can think of.

I hope that Writing True will play along, because I'd be very interested to see what sorts of true and interesting tidbits he can share while preserving his anonymity.

I'd also like to invite the author of I Don't Know Where I'm From, But I Do Know Where I've Been, because readers of her blog know a lot about what she's been through but not so much about who she is today.

Then, in an unprecedented move, I'm going to take a crack at my sister. Since she doesn't read my blog and she hasn't updated hers since December of 2006, I doubt that she'll ever see this or respond, but she's on the list.

And finally, Ramblings of a Longtime Procrastinator, because she had the (misfortune?) to be the last person to have signed up for my Writers and Writing Group at Blog Catalog, and I don't know anything about her yet.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Synchronicity II

Just a couple of hours after my post about taking risks, my daughter and I sat down to watch The Ron Clark Story. On his first day teaching in Inner Harlem, Clark hung two handwritten signs: Dream Big and Take Risks.

Honestly, I'm starting to wonder if there's more going on here than confirmation of what I've always preached to other writers. I'm starting to wonder whether someone is trying to tell ME something.

But that's not what I came here to talk about tonight. No, tonight I want to talk about ordinary people in fiction. This one started nibbling at my brain a few weeks ago, when I visited Regina Doman's website. Regina Doman is a Catholic writer whose books were recommended to me in a comment on my Catholic Blog. She writes grown-up, novel-length stories based on fairy tales, and on her website, she has a quote from G.K. Chesterton:

The old fairy tales endure forever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling: they startle him because he is normal.

My initial interest in the quote, I must admit, stemmed from the use of a semi-colon and a colon in the same relatively brief sentence. Secondarily, I was personally pleased by the concept because my latest novel-in-progress has as its protagonist a young man who works on an assembly line in central Indiana. But finally (by which I mean, after two minutes or so), I started to think from a writer's perspective, and to think about some of my favorite fiction. Could, for instance, anyone be more ordinary than Nick Adams? Hemingway's Nick Adams stories were among the earliest fiction to dig its hooks into me and really make me think about the art and craft of creating characters, but Nick could have been the boy next door to any of us.

Doman clearly took the words to heart--and I don't say that just because they appear both on her website and in her book. The two heroines of her first book are high school girls living with their widowed nurse mother in an apartment in New York.

Today, Jacquelyn Mitchard referred to the main character in her latest novel, Still Summer, as "the most ordinary of mothers". In fact, she pointed out that most of her characters are "people we already know". That definitely rang true to me, and it got me thinking about some other popular phenomena, too. Seinfeld, for instance...the show that became famous and wildly successful for being "about nothing".

We've all long known that identifiable moments were an important part of drawing in a reader, so it should come as no surprise that identifiable characters work. After all, the people who live lives much like our own, like those we see around us, are the most likely to have experiences that we identify with, to think in ways we'd think, to react in ways that we can understand and empathize with.

On one hand, this isn't much of a surprise--it's common to most of the memorable books I've read, and it's something I've apparently been leaning toward unconsciously myself. Still, I always find that it makes a difference when something has been consciously identified, that examples and opportunities begin to present themselves from all directions when a new consciousness enters the picture. I'm not sure yet how it will affect my writing, but it will be turning over and around in the back of my mind, awaiting its opportunity.

"It's Okay to Take Risks"

As any regular reader of this blog knows, synchronicity happens a lot in my life. Today is no exception. This morning, I was involved in a discussion online about aiming for goals that might seem unrealistic. I'm a fan of the principle, but like so many good ideas in the world, it seems to me to have become a bit blurry. The idea that it was good to reach for unrealistic goals like publishing a novel or starting your own business or becoming a concert violinist seems to have somehow become lumped in one category with unrealistic goals like "I can make six figures with my blog, and I won't have to write any actual content!"

I'm also a much bigger fan of the "I can achieve any goal if I'm willing to sweat blood to do it" school of thought than the, "If I just think positive Oprah Winfrey will knock on my door and ask if she can help me get the book on my hard drive published because she's eagerly waiting to feature it in her book club" approach.

Now, as you may know, I'm a big fan of Jacquelyn Mitchard. I had the opportunity to see Ms. Mitchard speak this afternoon at the Midwest Literary Festival. It was very interesting for a number of reasons (many of which will undoubtedly be the subject of future posts), but the thing that really reverberated with me--perhaps because of that discussion earlier in the day--was her description of her decision to write a book instead of pursuing more conventional employment after she was widowed.

She said, "People had offered me real jobs," and that people kept asking her why she would "want to do something so stupid and so unlikely to succeed". And her response was that she wanted to show her children that it was okay to take risks.

She said a good deal more on the subject of pursuing your dreams and not being beaten down by life; she'd been widowed and her children had lost their father young, and she said that she'd always wanted them to know that no matter what life dealt you, it didn't give you permission to become small. It's a lot to think about, whatever your profession, but that one line is still ringing in my ears: "I wanted to show them that it was okay to take risks."

For anyone who doesn't know, Mitchard's "risk" was to write and send out a book called The Deep End of the Ocean. If you haven't read it, perhaps you've seen the movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? The book was not only a bestseller, but was named by USA Today as one of the ten most influential books of the past 25 years and was Oprah Winfrey's first book club selection. Since then, she's written seven more novels, and they've all been bestsellers.

If it sounds like I've digressed for a moment into tooting Jackie Mitchard's horn...well, maybe I'm guilty. She's the writer I want to be when I grow up, even though she's not too much older than I. But my real point--the point that's relevant to all of us--is that she could have listened. The naysayers who couldn't see why she didn't just get a "real job" aren't so much different from the people who lie to novice writers that it's "almost impossible to break in" these days or those who claim to have the only formula that could possibly work for a successful writer.

And if she'd listened....well, that's the thing. We never know, do we? The world is full of people who listened, people who look to us just like every other clerk in the grocery store or finance manager or carpenter, and we never know about the song or the books or the invention they might have hiding inside them.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Huh...Turns Out There IS Such a Thing as Too Much Writing

As I've mentioned before, I'm a prolific writer. I'm always dismayed when I read an interview with some author or other and she says "if I can get 500 good words a day..." or something like that. I averaged more than 1,000 "good words" a day when my only writing time was my 50 minute train ride and I was writing in pencil on a legal pad. Well, I suppose "good words" is open to debate, but they were as good as any of my other words.

It's not unusual, when I'm wrapped up in a project, for me to write 5,000-7,000 words a day. I've written two novels in less than a month each, one while working full time.

I say this not to annoy those of you who are striving for five hundred good words a day--that pace works well for a lot of very successful writers (most, I suspect). No, I bring this up because I want to let you in on a little secret: I always secretly thought that there was no limit. I thought that, left to my own devices, with no "real life" to intrude, I would just write until I fell asleep at my keyboard and never tire of it.

I wrote, by my best estimate (I'm too freaking tired to go back and count), 16,000 words today.
I do not know where the magical line between "total immersion" and "I'm going to die if I write another word" is, precisely, but I now know this: it comes somewhere BEFORE 16,000 words.
I'm 41 years old and I've been writing since I was six; this is the first time I've ever walked away from writing feeling worse than I did when I started. And I feel like I've been hit by a truck, physically. My body aches. My fingers are numb. My typing skills have taken a nosedive to some point just slightly lower than during the period when I was typing with my arm in a sling.

I'm a huge proponent of the idea that nothing is absolute when it comes to writing, and that no writer should ever say to other writers, "You HAVE TO..." or "Don't EVER..."
But listen. Don't EVER write 16,000 words in one day.

For the first time in my life, I got up from my desk not wishing that I had time to write a little more, but desperately craving a nice long break from writing.

That was four hours ago. I guess "nice long" is open to interpretation, too.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

National Novel Writing Month

That time of year is right around the corner, when writers everywhere begin asking one another, "are you doing NaNo?" That is, the National Novel Writing Month challenge to complete a novel during the month of November.

I'm not "doing NaNo", and I never have, but it's had a profound impact on my writing, anyway. I first heard of NaNo five or six years ago, when I was participating in an online writers group for women. Honestly, I thought it sounded kind of gimmicky, and I was pretty busy with non-fiction projects at the time, so I paid it no mind. For about a week. By that point, I'd heard so many people talking about word counts and hours invested and the possibility of reaching the goal that I got curious. I wanted to see whether or not I could write a whole novel in a month. I didn't sign up, but I started writing, and I knocked out just over 40,000 words, edited and with submission materials, in three weeks. I sold it off for a kind of packaging, under someone else's name, and didn't give it much more thought.

At least, not until last year, when a friend of mine announced that she was going to give NaNo another try and I remembered just how quickly that other book had gone. It so happened that I'd started a romance novel a little earlier (okay, was THREE YEARS earlier) and stopped cold at about 9,000 words. Surely that couldn't take any time to knock out. The big difference was that I'd been freelancing the first time around; last year I had a full time job.

Still, I managed to finish the book during November, primarily by handwriting it on the commuter train.

And then...well, you see the pattern, right?

Here we are rapidly approaching November again, and I haven't even made any serious efforts to sell that novel I finished last year. I do, however, have another book that I wrote a few thousand words of and then let fall by the wayside, and I'm game to pick it up and see if I can polish it off during my November commute.

I just hope that I can squeeze in some time somewhere along the way some of these books that are piling up on my hard drive!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Internet is Ruining My Brain!

That may be a bit too strong, but it IS changing the way I read. And that comes as a big surprise to me, because even though I'm well aware of the differences between the way people read online and the way they read print materials, I don't do a lot of reading online. I'm one of those people who shudders when it's suggested that e-books or something similar will one day replace books you can hold in your hand and flip through, and if I have to read anything that's more than a page or so long online, I'll print it out.

So I was very surprised this evening when I found myself looking for text links in a book.

I'm reading the first of Regina Doman's books, on the recommendation of someone who posted a comment on my Catholic Blog in response to my post about C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces. I'm only on page 31; I can't give any kind of conclusive view of the book yet. But in the first chapter, there are several snippets of poetry and literary allusions, and let me tell you...I wanted hyperlinks.

I've always thought that the proliferation of links in text shortened people's attention spans and encouraged skimming or reading a paragraph or two and then jumping to something else. In fact, I've seen quite a lot of data that supports that idea. But my own inclination (another surprise) ran in a different direction. I wanted more context. I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to stop after a character quoted a line or two from a favorite poem and read the rest of it. A G.K. Chesterton novel I'd never heard of was mentioned; I wanted to have a look at it.

Of course, I'm free to look those things up before I move on (the Internet is still here, after all, even if I'm reading a regular book), but it was an interesting realization, that reading online provides the context to read more deeply if that's what we choose to do, to put things in context and understand the allusions that give a work another layer of texture.

Perhaps that shouldn't have been a revelation--that is, after all, one of the key purported benefits of links in online text. But it's so contrary to the net effect that I see as people become accustomed to reading online that it came as quite a surprise to me--all the more shocking because I'd apparently adopted the habit of clicking on links for context and then returning to the main text without any conscious awareness.

So maybe the Internet isn't ruining my brain, but it seems that it is changing the way I gather and assimilate information.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Join my Writers and Writing Group at Blog Catalog

Just a quick note to invite any of my readers who are also writers to join my Writers and Writing Group at Blog Catalog. The Groups function is new, but there are already a number of very promising groups moderated (if that's the right word) by people who know their fields well and are engaging writers with a history of thoughtful interaction on the general discussion boards.

You'll have to join Blog Catalog in order to sign up, but if you're a blogger you probably want to do that anyway--the community and discussion there is far superior to any other directory or network I've found.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Characters and Character Traits

Recently, a passing comment in a discussion about favorite characters triggered some big questions in my mind--questions I don't think I'd ever considered in all my years as a reader and a writer. Another writer in the discussion seemed to indicate that the same characteristics drew her to a character as drew her to real-life people.

I was surprised, not so much to hear that that was true as to realize that I'd never thought about whether or not it was true for me. I quick mental scan revealed the high probability that it was not.

The writer who made the comment blogs about conversations overheard; perhaps it makes sense that the line between character and real person would not be a very bright one in her mind. She has a real knack for spinning people into characters after hearing only brief conversations.

For me, though, I think the things that make a character interesting and compelling are often things I wouldn't in a million years want to encounter in real life. Popular fiction alone is replete with examples. In fact, I think that the very thing that makes what I think of as "throwaway fiction" so appealing is the taste it offers of a life we'd never live.
  • Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is a walking disaster--and that's exactly what makes it possible to whip through the novels in which she stars in a couple of hours, with a recurrent smile. The sexual tension she maintains with two men, alternately or simultaneously depending upon the book, keeps things interesting. But in real life? She blunders into things she doesn't understand, keeps the people around her constantly worried, and lives her entire life on balanced on the praecipice of infidelity. NOT someone I'd want to hang out with.
  • Robert Parker's Hawk is one of my all-time favorite characters in popular fiction. The contrast between his erudite literary tastes and his unfortunate choice of profession (hired killer) is compelling on paper--and to the string of educated professional women his character dates--but in real life? Hello...he KILLS people? A bit of a stumbling block, anyone?
  • My daughter is quite intrigued by the character of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter series. Bellatrix is, outside the primary villain in the series, perhaps the closest thing to pure, unconflicted evil presented in all of those 3,000+ pages. She has a certain attitude, a certain voice, that's a bit entertaining in that "love to hate" way...but one that would certainly (I hope) inspire disdain in real life.
The same is true, in less blatant fashion, in more literary fiction. One example that springs to mind is the character of Ole, the old man, in Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers". Ole, when advised by teenage Nick Adams, that men have come to town to kill him, he simply rolls toward the wall. There's little to admire either in his implied past or in his resignation, but his few simple actions speak volumes.

Often, in fact, it's the things that are most reprehensible about a character, or saddest, or most lacking, or that the character himself is unable to see or to learn, that allow us to learn the most from him. Piet Hanema, in Updike's Couples, provides an excellent illustration.

Granted, these aren't necessarily the things that make a character likable, but they are often the things that make a character memorable, interesting, educational or critical to plot.

From a writer's perspective, that means that the characters we design to be heroes aren't necessarily going to be the ones who hold a reader's attention, or that it might be the flaws and dichotomies as much as the admirable traits that make a character memorable. Is that important to keep in mind? I'm not sure. I've been writing for more than 30 years, and the whole question came as something of a shock to me--but in retrospect, I find that hasn't affected my character development or kept me from creating characters who might not be the people I'd want living next door or working in my office.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just for Fun

I went looking through some very old files this evening, and I came across the piece that I think of as my first blog post ever. I didn't have a blog at the time, but writing this and having no purpose for it inspired me to create a section on my old website called "The Odd Word from Tiffany", which functioned pretty much like a blog except that it was a static page and my poor husband had to update it for me every few days when I had something new to say.

Stark Raving Mad?

I saw a call for submissions today that made me laugh out loud. There is much controversy within the profession about writing for free. My position on that issue can be summed up in one sentence: My first book came about as a direct result of an article that I wrote for free.

There’s a difference, though, between writing for free and paying for the privilege. There’s also a difference between writing for free and writing for free at great length while naked in front of a camera.

Yep, you read that right. The call for submissions I saw this morning was a request for poetry. Poets were asked to submit 3-4 poems for consideration. In the happy event that the poet’s work was accepted, she would then have the privilege of sitting—naked—for a professional photographer. With the poet’s original work and nude photos in place, the poet would then be required to write another poem about being tricked into posing nude…uh…er…I mean, the artistic experience of posing nude.

The publication might or might not choose to publish that poem along with the original poem and the nude photographs. In return for the right to publish the original poem, the nude photographs, and possibly the second poem, the poet would receive…a copy of the publication.

Sorry, guys. Anyone who wants to photograph me in the nude—and I readily concede that this is a very small percentage of the population—has to at least buy me dinner. If they want me to write about it afterward, I am definitely going to need more than the right to buy additional copies at a discounted price.

I believe—and my own experience proves—that there are logical, practical reasons to write for free. If, however, there are logical, practical reasons to write for free, then pose nude for free, then write about posing nude for free for free, I have not yet discovered them.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Okay, the moment has finally arrived...

when you get to find out what in the heck I was getting at on Tuesday.

I know you've been holding your breath.

The thing is, as writers we paint images with nearly every line, and the best of us do it in such a way that the reader feels like he's right there in the scene, seeing it happen instead of reading words on a page. But sometimes, the images we evoke aren't the ones we intended. Sometimes, they have more to do with associations in the reader's mind than the pictures in our own.

I really was barefoot in the kitchen making coffee on Tuesday morning, wiping the counters with an orange sponge and waiting for the coffee to brew. And I really was in a gold-trimmed building in the Chicago Loop, and the coffee I was brewing was in an urn provided by our coffee service. There's a health club in the basement and an underground pedway to Macy's, and I really did pause for a moment and wonder whether it was legal to be walking around barefoot.

But when I had that thought, a funny thing happened. I thought the first line I wrote in that last blog post: At 10:56 on Tuesday morning I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I think like that; it's a hazard of being a writer, I guess. I often hear people comment on the difference between the way people talk and the way they write, but for me it's different. The way I write is the way I think, and I sometimes have to translate into more casual, less image-laden language in order to converse. And condense, of course. I tend to think in paragraphs.

And the crazy thing was that when I thought that sentence, I pictured myself barefoot in my kitchen at home, mid-morning, my daughter at school, wearing a sweatshirt on a just-turning fall day.

I was at work. I was wearing a skirt. My high-heeled shoes were under my desk. But the image that sentence evoked in my OWN mind was entirely different.

I read that last blog post to my daughter who, though only eleven, is also a writer. She knows where I work and what it looks like. She knows that I was at work on Tuesday morning. And yet she, too, pictured me in our kitchen. When I got to the orange sponge and gray counters--things we don't have at home--she started trying to picture some previous apartment I might have had, and when I said that I shared the kitchen with a hundred people, she wondered about my college dorm. It wasn't until the last paragraph that she realized that I was at work.

Barefoot in the kitchen making coffee evokes home, apparently--at least for some of us. Even when we know better.

That's an important thing to be conscious of when we're writing--not the coffee thing, but the way that associations we may not even be aware of can color the images our readers will conjure up at our words.

It's a challenge, but it also has great power, if we know how to use it to evoke the images and associations we hope to convey.

Many years ago--I think it was 1986--I went to an art exhibit in the Student Center at Northern Illinois University (NIU). I didn't plan to go, and I didn't know anything about the artist. I was just passing through the Student Center on my way back from class, saw a painting that caught my eye, and walked over. I liked the exhibit, but twenty years later I only remember one painting. It was a small painting of an old pipe sticking out of a wall. Just that.

The wall, if I recall correctly, was that pale green halfway between malt and mint, a shade that hasn't been seen since lead-based paint went out of style. It reminded me instantly, overwhelmingly, of my grandmother's house. I'd never seen such a pipe at my grandmother's house, and she had nothing I could think of in that color, but the association was as clear and strong as if the painting had been of dotted swiss curtains blowing in the breeze over a flower garden or cracked red and black floor tile.

Later, I mentioned the show to my roommate, who was an art major. I thought she might want to see it, but it turned out that she already had. When I told her there had been one painting that had reminded me powerfully of my grandmother's house, she put her hand to her mouth and said, "Was it just a pipe sticking out of a wall?"

Turned out she'd had the same reaction.

My grandmother lived in an attic apartment on the south side of Chicago. My roommate's grandmother lived in Italy. Imagine that. This artist...this stranger...painted a piece of pipe sticking out of a wall and, with an image unfamiliar to both of us, evoked the same childhood memory from two people with very different childhoods. Two decades later, that's still vivid in my mind. That's the goal, isn't it?

Or was she thinking of a pipe in the alley behind an abandoned public school building where she hung out with her boyfriend as a teenager?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Image Association (or Barefoot in the Kitchen)

At 10:56 on Tuesday morning, I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee.

Can you see it?

At 10:56 a.m. on Tuesday, I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I wiped down the counter with a bright orange sponge while I waited for the coffee to brew.

Do you see the sponge? The counters were gray.

At 10:56 on Tuesday morning, I was barefoot in the kitchen, wiping down the counters while I waited for the coffee to brew. I looked absently out over the busy city street, not really seeing the people rushing by. I just heard the muted, delicate ding of the small, gold elevator in the hallway.

Do you know where I am?

At 10:56 a.m., my feet ache already. My black high-heeled shoes are in the other room, under my desk, and I'm barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I glance toward the doorway, suddenly wondering whether it's legal to be walking around the kitchen in my office barefoot, a kitchen shared by nearly 100 people, a kitchen in a building trimmed in gold and glass and equipped with a full selection of water and wine glasses, coffee service, and a dishwasher.

I think this post is going to come in two pieces--the NEXT one will explain why I'm posting this (unless, of course, that's perfectly clear to you...)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A while back, I posted about my inability to control my mental red pen, and how I tend to see grammatical errors as if they'd been pre-highlighted for me.

The premise of that post was that it's not any more fun for me than it is for the people around me--the ones I sometimes can't quite help correcting. But sometimes...well...sometimes it really is good fun.

A few days ago, a friend who is neither a blogger nor a reader of blogs sent me a link to a blog: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks
I'm not afraid to tell you how much fun I had there. You already knew I was a geek, right?

I immediately forwarded the link to my friend Barb, former editor of Austin Family magazine, and started wondering whether I could start a similar blog about the misuse of apostrophes. Dave Barry's comment that apostrophes are primarily used by small business owners to signal that an "s" is forthcoming remains one of the funniest things I've ever heard, and if you haven't read Dave Barry's book on grammar, you must.

But I digress. Barb wrote back right away and said she was linking to this blog immediately and did I think we could start a sister site on apostrophe abuse. It turned out, though, that it was already covered here: Apostrophe Abuse

So I'm taking it all back. It's fun. It's a lot of fun.

There are some other really good links on that "blog", too, and I'd love to tell you about them, but I have some thing's to "do".

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Help, I Can't Cope with My Stats Program!

It's not the mechanics that are giving me trouble, or interpreting the data. The problem is the search strings. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, or maybe because I've spent so much of my career writing consumer information (or maybe I'm just obsessive-compulsive), but I have a deep need to be able to RESPOND to searches.

Today, for instance, someone visited this blog based on the search string "Rick Springfield's daughter".

Rick Springfield doesn't have a daughter; he has two sons. See, it's just such a quick, easy little answer. I want to drop a quick email to the person searching for information on Rick Springfield's daughter and let her know. But I don't know who she was, and she already didn't find what she was looking for on my blog, so she probably won't be back.

It's even worse on my Catholic blog. Over there, I get search strings that are questions, search strings like, "Can a Catholic marry a non-Catholic?"

Well, see, I HAVE the answer to that, but it's not on my blog. And it's a shade more important, I think, than whether or not Rick Springfield has a daughter. But there's nothing I can do about it now.

I'm actually in the process of putting together a Squidoo lens on Catholic marriage purely in response to the number of questions about the subject that are landing people to my Catholic blog. And I'm glad I was inspired to do that,'s not quite good enough for me. Because, after all, the PERSON WHO ASKED THE QUESTION might not see it.

Okay, it's much clearer now. It's definitely the obsessive-compulsive thing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rick Springfield is Going to Sing on General Hospital....Let Me Tell You Why I Care

If you were (as I was) a teenage Rick Springfield fan in the 80s, you probably know that he declined to make music on the soap opera during the height of his musical popularity. "Jessie's Girl" was just breaking onto the charts when Dr. Noah Drake appeared on the GH set, and the cross-promotional opportunities were impossible to ignore, but Springfield said something along the lines of, " character is a doctor??"

A quarter of a century later, Springfield is set to perform on General Hospital for the first time this Friday, and that's fun and brings back memories, but it's not headline news.

"So," you may be wondering, "why are you telling me all this?"

It's because several years ago, I found myself in the odd position of approaching Rick Springfield while perched on the precarious line between grown-up-who-used-to-be-a-hardcore-teenage-fan and professional trying to do a job. I was writing a book; my research was exceptional and my writing was solid. My credentials, though, were a little weak for the job I was doing.

I learned a lot about interviewing, about publishing and about copyrights and licensing. I learned a little bit about the music industry. I learned some great stories that I'll never tell on the record. And I learned that Rick Springfield is the kind of man every teenage fan wanted to believe he was 25 years ago.

I have very probably written more about Rick Springfield than any other writer. I've been cited and quoted and consulted by other authors and editors. I've done articles and bios and album reviews...and, of course, that little book. But what's below is the best thing I ever wrote about Rick Springfield, and for five or six years I haven't shared it with anyone except a few close friends and family members.

I've written nearly everything there is to say about what Rick Springfield has DONE. The story below, I think, is the one about who he is. Maybe it explains why it makes me happy to see him still rocking on network television the week of his 58th birthday.

Stars in Her Eyes

At 6:45 a.m. I have slept for only four hours and am feeling the effects of the rare two drinks I had the night before. I do not want to get out of bed. I look at my tiny daughter, sleeping in the center of the giant hotel bed. She’s tired too, and I can see that her father didn’t give her a bath last night.

I think, “She’ll never know. I don’t have to wake her up.” My head is pounding from lack of sleep and the tensions of the past two days. Very softly I say, “Tori.” There is no response. “

"Tori Linn,” I call, a little more loudly, but still she doesn’t stir.

“Tori,” I say, “you don’t have to get up. But if you want to, we can go down and see Rick before he leaves.”

Instantly she’s sitting up and nodding frantically. Then she asks, “Does he want to see me, too?”

Never, even in my wildest moments of teenage adulation, have I loved Rick Springfield as much as I do at that moment, because I know with absolute certainty that I can look into my six-year-old’s shining eyes and say “yes,” and he will not disappoint her.

We sit in a chair in the lobby watching early-morning businessmen checking out of their rooms and I can feel the tension in her little body on my lap. I’d still rather be in bed. I wrap my arms around her waist but she does not relax against me. Her back is straight and her eyes wide.

I watch Rick’s road manager, and then his engineer, and then his band come into the lobby one by one. I watch his road manager check them out and then make a call on the house phone, a call I know is intended to get Rick out of his room and into the waiting car. I watch them pace, and I warn my daughter that he is going to be in a hurry, that she will have only a moment.

She wants to take a picture of him with her new Barbie camera, being used for the second time on this trip. I tell her to be ready. Suddenly my confidence, so strong only half an hour earlier, is gone. I’m nervous for her. The elevator door opens and he steps through, ducking slightly, dressed in black.

It has been a long time since my heart stopped beating at the sight of him, but this morning it misses a beat for my daughter, waiting so eagerly. He looks toward the crowd of people waiting impatiently for him to leave and I nearly stop breathing. I put Tori down on the floor, but she clings close to my leg, suddenly shy in his presence.

He goes to her first, and in an instant is kneeling on the floor of the hotel lobby next to her. He is so tall, and she so small, that even on his knees he towers over her. His first words are, “I haven’t seen you in a long time.” My child, who talked in complex sentences at 15 months, is unable to speak.

I tell Rick that she just got her first camera and she wants to take a picture of him, but he misunderstands and moves to pose with her. I say, “Do you want Mommy to take your picture with Rick?” and she nods, still unable to speak. I take the pink plastic camera from her hand and, when she makes no move to help, unlace it from her wrist.
She’s glowing as he pulls her in close to him, his hand covering her entire midsection. I’m nervous about the Barbie camera. There is nothing to focus. There is no light meter. I know she will be devastated if this picture doesn’t turn out.

As Rick kneels on the floor holding my daughter, Matty Spindel, his Grammy-winning engineer, asks if I’d like him to take the picture so that I can get in it with them. I thank him, but smile and shake my head. This isn’t my picture.

Rick kisses her before he gets up and then moves to hug me. This takes me by surprise. It would never have occurred to me to approach him—this isn’t my moment. The zipper on his leather jacket presses into my shoulder as I rise up on my toes to whisper “Thank you” in his ear. He may not know what I’m thanking him for—there has certainly been plenty over the past few days. I had come to do an interview with a man I had admired for twenty years, and whose intuition let him clearly see both sides of that coin. He was the consummate professional during the interview, then hugged me and tousled my hair when it was over, understanding that the tape in my left hand and the gift for my daughter in my right were of equal value.

“Thank you” seemed to be all that I had said to him for two days. Thank you for the personal commentary that would change the texture of my book, although I already had all of the information. Thank you for free front row seats, for backstage passes, for inviting me to the sound check. Thank you for remembering Tori and that she would want to see him…he may not have known, in that moment, what that last “thank you” was for, or how heartfelt it was.
There were many things to thank him for, but looking over his shoulder into my daughter’s eyes, I knew that nothing this man could do as a Grammy-winning vocalist, as a gifted songwriter, as a sexy entertainer who held audiences in the palm of his hand, would ever impress me the way that it did when he took the time to kneel on the floor of a hotel lobby at daybreak and make a six-year-old feel that he did, in fact, want to see her too.

Ran Across a Blog this Evening....

that's asking the tough questions like, "Just why can't people (and major corporations) say 'iced' when that's what they mean?" and "Should use of 'their' with a singular noun be punishable by death?"

Okay, maybe I exaggerated the second one just a little bit, but if you enjoyed my Accidental Grammar Police post, One Step Forward will definitely make you laugh...and curse under your breath.

And while we're talking blogs, I nominated So the Thing Is... for the Blogger's Choice Awards. If, like me, you have the good sense to really and truly enjoy Barb Cooper's humorous and heartfelt presentation consider clicking here and voting for her: Vote "So the Thing Is..." Best Parenting Blog!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I Just Watched High School Musical 2

No, really.

I'm not a fan of Ashley Tisdale or "Baby V", and teenagers "spontaneously" breaking into choreographed dance in the middle of the kitchen don't do much for me, either. But I'm a big fan of this 11-year-old girl who was very excited to see the sequel, and so we planned dinner around the broadcast and I have to admit that there was a bit of spontaneous dancing in my living room. Some of us were more spontaneous than others--the over forty crowd might have required a little "Come on, mom!" type prompting.

I can sing "The Year 3000", too, and have some opinions on the various hairstyles of the Jonas Brothers.

No, I am absolutely not one of those "cool moms" you might remember someone having from your teenage years (though I have been so accused by my daughter's friends). I'm 41. I drive a Neon by choice. I'm a hardcore Catholic and a safety-precaution junkie.

Thing is, I like to talk to my kid. Of course, we talk about things besides teenage pop music. We're reading To Kill a Mockingbird together right now. We're both sort of information geeks. And we both always have a couple of novels in progress. Many of those interests she developed by my side. Writing may be a natural inclination, but it was undoubtedly also fed by the days when she sat by my desk with her V-Tech "laptop" and worked on spelling while I freelanced, and by the stories we wrote and illustrated together long before she started school.

Now, she's developing her own interests, and frankly, some of them don't interest me all that much. But SHE still interests me, and I guess it's my turn to look at things through her eyes instead of just showing her the world through mine. Sometimes, that means dancing in the living room during High School Musical 2. Sometimes, it means learning to differentiate between six or seven female pop singers with mediocre voices whose songs all sound the same to me. But it also means that when my daughter names the song she wants to sing in the talent show, I know what she's talking about, and I know whether it's a good fit for her voice and her range, and I know other songs to suggest she try out if it seems like maybe it's not. And it means I'm in a position to comment casually that Hilary is looking a little too thin, and I hope she's not letting the star image thing get to her and making herself sick when she was already so very pretty as a normal-looking teenager.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe quite a bit more than The Simpsons, and I wasn't that excited to see that Fantastic Four Silver Surfer thing at all. I'd rather play Scrabble than the Harry Potter edition of Scene It! I suspect, in fact, that sometimes she makes the same kind of concessions, that sometimes she plays Mancala with me when she'd rather be playing Spyrosomethingoranother on her Play Station 2...but that's what relationships with other people--even those little people who so rapidly grow into individuals who are far more than extensions of ourselves--are all about, isn't it?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Parenting - The Fun Never Ends

No, really, I mean it. When my daughter was a baby, I decided to stay home with her for the first couple of years. But then she just kept staying so small that I decided to stay home with her until she went to school. But kindergarten was less than three hours a day, and when I walked her there the first day and told her where I'd be when she came out after school she said, "But first will I see you at recess?" By then I was freelancing and teaching in the evenings, and it was the easiest thing in the world to push it back another year or two. Finally, changing circumstances made the decision for me when she was nine.

There were a lot of wonderful things about being home with her during those years--Mommy & Me, going swimming every day in the summer, hundreds of walks and hundreds of stories, and getting to be the one who pushed her on the swings and then who taught her to pump, who held up the back end of her bicycle and then let go. One of the greatest things, though, was seeing the world through her eyes. Things I would have walked right past required inspection--an unusual flower on the river bank, a stick that looked like a boat floating downstream and had to be named. I've never been a "stop and smell the roses" kind of girl. I know what roses smell like; let's move on. But if I didn't have a lot of interest in the rose, I was purely fascinated by the way my baby's eyes changed when SHE saw the rose, or the way she reached out for something new and interesting without even seeming to realize that she'd done it.

As so often happens to me, two things converged this week to bring all of this back to mind. The first was that a woman on discussion board referred to early childhood as "this wonder filled time". The second was that I took my daughter to register for middle school.

Let me admit right up front that I'm not thrilled about this middle school thing. The middle school is BIG. And it's a public school in a very socio-economically mixed area. I went to middle school, and even thirty years ago I was offered drugs and suddenly activities were being suggested that I'd never heard of before. This is where we find out just how much influence our family and the church has had on her decision-making processes, just how secure she is in her own values, just how she processes new and possibly not-yet-welcome information...and maybe it's not good parenting, but I'd put that day off for another decade or so if I could.

So, we arrived at the middle school gymnasium (at least, it looked like a gymnasium to me...they CALL it a "cafetorium") and I wrote checks at several different tables, and at each one she got something new...a planner, her locker assignment and combination, her schedule (as we walked away from that table she said, "I have a schedule!"), her gym suit. Then we went out into the school to look for her locker and her classrooms, and an amazing thing happened. The hallways were filled with children on the verge of adolescence who were still filled with wonder at the ordinary--it was just a different ordinary. They showed each other their (identical) gym suits. They compared schedules and jumped up and down when they found out they had classes together. They asked questions like, "Did you SEE the tables in the science room?!" They checked out all-important issues like "Can I work my lock?" and "Can I fit inside my locker?" (These seemed to be of approximately equal importance.) And I realized that watching my daughter work her first combination lock on her first official locker with barely controlled excitement was just as much fun as watching her discover her first butterfly, even if she did insist on trading in those cute little dresses for torn jeans and t-shirts somewhere in between. I suspect there are a lot of new discoveries still to come