Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New England Crime Bake

Have you ever been to a traditional New England clam bake? A bunch of friends get together on a beach, talk about things they all enjoy, play a little on the sand or in the water, and enjoy good food and fellowship. It's a great way to spend a day, and when it's over, everyone looks forward to the next time.

Well, last weekend I discovered another New England tradition that I look forward to repeating in the future. It is the joint meeting of the New England Mystery Writers Association (MWA) and Sisters in Crime (SinC), dubbed the "New England Crime Bake." There, a bunch of mystery writers get together in a hotel in Dedham, MA, talk about writing mysteries, play a little at a banquet and ball, and enjoy good food and fellowship. It's a great way to spend a weekend.

This was my first Crime Bake, and my first writers conference, but I felt welcome among the veterans there. I have attended several writers' workshops over the years, but this was different. It was not designed to help me make great progress with developing my characters or designing my plot. It was, instead, an opportunity for networking, learning some tricks of the trade, and making new friends.

The conference was extremely well-run, packing in several days' worth of activities into just 45 hours. The 300+ participants enjoyed panels on many aspects of mystery writing, including those with such interesting titles as "Miss Marple, How You've Changed!" and "What's Written in Blood," as well as discussions of setting, using humor, how to write a page turner, and many  more.

I had an opportunity to meet the Query Shark herself, Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, and her wonderful assistant, Meredith. Janet is one of the agents everyone wanted to meet. She worked with my group in the "Practice Your Manuscript Pitch" seminar. I told her I had written a cozy mystery (i.e. no "on screen" violence or sex, set in a small town, non-professional sleuth, etc.). She listened to my initial pitch and told me I had written a suspense novel. It became a running joke between us throughout the conference. Later, when I met her for a five-minute pitch session, we talked about it again. She gave me a book to read and suggested another title. I look forward to reading them both and looking at my manuscript through her lens.

The Guest of Honor for the event was Charlaine Harris, the author of the Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, Sookie Stackhouse, and most recently the Harper Connelly mystery series. She is best known for the Sookie Stackhouse books upon which the HBO vampire series True Blood is based. She told us that people are often surprised to hear that she is also married, the mother of three children, and active in her church. But she admits that many of her novels come from a very dark place. She was extremely generous with her time, answered countless questions, posed for photos, and signed hundreds of books for conferees. For one coming from a "dark place," she was extremely friendly, open, and funny.

The Red and Black Ball on Saturday night was probably the most fun event of the weekend. Conferees and their guests filled the ballroom--many dressed in red and black, but many others dressed as their favorite "creatures of the night." There was a costume contest with prizes in the categories of "Most Spook-tacular," "Most Boo-tiful," and "Most Hell-arious." A man who sat next to me won for most "Hell-arious." He was dressed as a lobster and wore a black cape. But he suffered for his art. By the time the night was over, I think he felt like he had been in the lobster pot himself because his costume was so warm.

All in all, it was a weekend to remember . . . and I look forward to the next time.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Jane Austen Celebration

For the past year, I have been a life-member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). I have attended exactly three meetings: one chapter meeting in New York, and two Annual General Meetings (Philadelphia in 2009 and Portland, OR last month).

With so few meetings, you might wonder why I decided to become a life member. The answer is simple. JASNA is such fun!

Jane Austen fans from all over the continent, and some other countries from around the globe, gather at the Annual General Meetings to dress, quote, and think about Jane Austen and her six novels (Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility) and her other writings. There were six hundred of us in Portland. As you might expect, there are plenty of English professors and Austen scholars among us, but there are also lots of just plain fans. Many of us dress in Regency-style gowns and waistcoats for a ball of English country dancing to live music on Saturday night. Those dances might look genteel on screen, but some are a real workout. No wonder Regency women carried fans.

Most "Janeites," as Austen aficionados are known, have read all the novels more than once. Some have dissected them for every nuance Jane might have dropped into a scene unnoticed by the casual reader. It is an amazing experience to be among so many who share a passion for the same thing--like being a Trekker at a Star Trek convention, or a nerd at Comic-con.

Some fans came to Austen as youngsters reading their first novel, while others came to it through one of the many movie or television interpretations of the novels. The 1995 A&E/BBC six-episode adaptation of Pride and Prejudice did a lot to inspire 21st-century fans (and enhance Colin Firth's career!). 

Also in 1995, Emma Thompson's film of Sense and Sensibility gained box office (and home video) popularity. It was followed by Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. But these are far from the only recent iterations of Jane Austen novels. PBS did new television versions of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion in 2007-2009 despite the fact that Mansfield Park had been done in 1983 and 1999, Northanger Abbey in 1987, Persuasion in 1960, 1971, and 1995, and Sense and Sensibility in 1971, 1981, in addition to the 1995 film.  Emma has been produced for film or television more than a dozen times since 1932, including the 1995 movie Clueless. PBS did not redo Pride and Prejudice, however. To many Austen fans, the 1995 adaptation has become iconic.

Not to be outdone by Emma, Pride and Prejudice has its own long list of adaptations, including a 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, another BBC version in 1980, a Mormon version of Pride and Prejudice from 2003, Bride and Prejudice: The Bollywood Musical (2004), and a film starring Keira Knightly (2005). And these are just some of those done in English. There have been many more. 

With all of the remakes of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, one could assume they are every Janeite's favorite novels. I was surprised to learn last week that, in fact, in a poll of JASNA members, Persuasion was listed as the favorite of more than any other. Northanger Abbey, Austen's parody of the Gothic novels popular during her lifetime, finished last.

What other novels can we come up with that are made and remade so frequently? It is too bad that Austen died so young--age 41--and left behind only six novels. If she had written more, there would be more good movies being made.

Why are they so popular? The time in which she wrote is so different from today, and roles of women have changed so much over the past two centuries. But the novels are timeless stories about love, wealth, and power. Austen's female protagonists (or antagonists, for that matter) were not docile lambs who would happily be told what to do or how to think by the men around them. They seem as real as the people who are her fans today--thinking, reading women and men who enjoy wit and social commentary, and suffer from all too human foibles. The books give us a window into the society of another time through characters to whom we can realte. And Austen's use of language is nearly musical. Is it a fantasy that everyone once spoke so well?

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of her first publication, Sense and Sensibility, and we JASNA folks will be celebrating it in Fort Worth, Texas. There will be scholarly papers, interesting workshops, and screenings of the Emma Thompson movie. But we're not all staid and proper. The planning committee tells us that there will also be mechanical bull riding, dancing the two-step,  and Texas Hold 'Em instead of whist in the cards room. It looks like it will be another great time for fans of Jane Austen--or those who want to have a good time among excellent company.

Maybe I'll see you there! For more information, see

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Is Sexism Dead?

A couple of years ago, I taught a college class entitled "Gender and the Law," in which I took students through the evolution of legal barriers to gender equality. At the end of the class, both male and female students thought that it was little more than a history lesson and that sex discrimination no longer exists--at least concerning anything that matters.

But there is evidence everywhere that sexism still exists. Were this not so, would there be so many films and television shows that fail the Bechdel Test? 

The Bechdel Test is a simple, three-question test designed by Alison Bechdel to determine whether women appear in a film or program as real characters. A film or TV show will pass the Bechdel Test if it: 1. has at least two named women as characters, 2. the women have at least one conversation, and 3. the conversation is about something other than a man or men. It is surprising how few pass this test, including some blockbuster successes. So we see it, but does anyone care? 

Most writers, and many others, have been following the recent debate about whether male authors get more respect just by virtue of their sex than women do. It was touched off when two female authors (Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner) said publicly that they believed that it is harder for a woman to have her book reviewed in the New York Times than it is for, say, Jonathan Franzen whose most recent novel, Freedom, was extolled in two--yes two!--New York Times book reviews, as well as a number of other prominent places. It turns out that, indeed, the NY Times reviews significantly more male authors than female. A summary of the debate can be found at:

Coincidentally, another new report out this week announced that women make 83 cents for every $1 earned by a man for comparable work. This, the report said, was an amazing victory for women. (I doubt the man reporting it would have thought it a victory to be told he was going to get paid only 83% of his salary for the coming year.) But he had a point--there has been progress. In the mid-seventies, women only made 59% of what men earned for comparable work. But we still have not reached gender equality. 

Like most women my age, I have endured my share of sexism. I was encouraged to become a paralegal instead of going to law school. When I interviewed for my first job as a lawyer, I was asked about my husband's employment status. I was told by a fellow attorney that women only go to law school to find a husband. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

I tried to raise my children without the ingrained gender roles. It was a thrill when I told my young daughter that the father of a girl she had met was also a lawyer, and her reaction was, "That's silly. Daddies can't be lawyers." (Okay--she still had rigid gender roles, but at least they were based on personal experience rather than societal expectations.)

At a writers conference several years ago, a writer voiced the opinion that women can always write men better than men can write women. I tend to be skeptical about sentences including the word "always," but I heard her out. She said that since women live in a male-dominated world, women have had to learn to understand men to a greater degree than men have had to understand women. If that is true, wouldn't women authors be more likely than men to write the truly "Great American Novel?" Yet there was still a man who, in response to a article entitled, "Can a Woman be a 'Great American Novelist?'" said "Women writers don't speak to me, they speak to other women." It is subjective, yes, but doesn't this also sound like prejudice? 

And despite the fact that women buy more books than men do, the Times still reviews more men.

So what do you think?  Are my students right? Have we reached a point where gender discrimination doesn't exist, or if it does, it doesn't matter? Or do we still have a long way to go--and if so, how do we get there?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Every so often, there is a list of quotes about writing or writers that makes me think that maybe I'm not quite as crazy for spending a perfectly beautiful, sunny, summer day inside as most people would think. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ever Hear of a Place Called Humble?

There's a little town in Texas that most of us have never heard of. It's called Humble, and occupies about ten square miles of northeastern Harris County near Houston. It started out as a tiny oil town, but gradually grew to its current population of about fifteen thousand.

If you're not an author of Young Adult (YA) fiction, you have probably never heard of it. For YA authors, however, it is a different story. They know how this small, independent school district has touched off a firestorm in the literary world.


By planning its biennial Teen Lit Fest.

It seems that the Humble Independent School District is interested in getting kids to read--a laudable goal, to say the least. So, some years ago, it began bringing authors in to talk to teens about their writing, to sign books, give out door prizes, and generally make it more cool for teens to read--or write. The last one in 2009 was a big success, and many looked forward to the 2011 event. They had a select group of authors lined up to attend, including New York Times bestseller, and multiple children's-writing award winner, Ellen Hopkins. What a coup!

But then a middle school librarian made comments to one or more parents about the content of some of Ms. Hopkins work, alleging that it was not appropriate for middle-school students. Those parents brought that concern to the Superintendent, Dr. Guy Sconzo, who then, without any discussion with the author, removed Ms. Hopkins from the list of those invited to the event. In protest of what they deemed censorship, several of the other authors who were planning to attend decided to boycott the event. The school district eventually cancelled it altogether.

I am not in a position to comment on whether I would want my teen or preteen to read Ms. Hopkins' work. I have never read a word she has written. I do know that there are many books written for young adults that I would try to steer my middle schooler or high schooler away from. That's the job of parents. To use their best judgment to decide what is or is not an appropriate activity for their own children. Not the neighbors' kids--not the kids down the street--not the kids on the other side of town. By having an open and frank discussion with one's children, a parent can influence the choices they make even when they are not under the parent's direct supervision.

But should these non-specific "concerns" of a few parents and a lone librarian have led to rescinding Ms. Hopkins' invitation to the event? She had participated in similar events in nearby communities without any adverse response reported. And if a few individuals can get an author's appearance canceled, is it too big a stretch to worry that removing her books from the school district libraries will be next?

The list of books that have been banned over the decades includes many that we now consider classics. Without defending any particular writing, I feel I must defend the author's right to speak or write as he or she decides--and the parent's right not to take their children to any event.

As it is, the children of Humble have lost out on an evening that might have made them better readers--or might have spawned a future writer or two. And that's too bad for all of us.

What do you think? Should a school district event include an author than a few parents feel writes material inappropriate for their children?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Elena Kagan and The Supreme Court--Are the Times A-Changing?

Yesterday the Senate confirmed the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the fourth woman in history to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court. During the confirmation process, there was much discussion about her lack of previous judicial experience, her judicial philosophy, and her decision while dean of Harvard Law School to ban military recruiters from on-campus interviews because she believed "don't ask, don't tell" to be in violation of the school's anti-discrimination policies. Some even attempted to derail support for her by implying that she was a lesbian, although how that could be relevant to her qualifications to serve as a Supreme Court justice was never spelled out. (Similar whisper campaigns were waged against the nominations of other capable, single women in the past including Janet Reno--President Clinton's Attorney General, and Sonia Sotomayor--Obama's previous appointee on the Supreme Court.) When all was said and done, however, there was no serious attempt to block Kagan's nomination, and her appointment was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 63-37. She is expected to be sworn in on August 7.

So does this change things?

Well, for the first time in history, one-third of the justices on the Supreme Court are now women: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. It took nearly two hundred years for there to be one woman, appointed to the Court. To have three at once shows how much things have changed since the days before President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Court in 1981. As recently as the early 1970s, many law schools discriminated against women in the admissions process, yet today there are only slightly more male law school matriculants than female, and three women sit at the pinnacle of the profession. Will this change the Court's decisions? Probably not. Studies show that only in the area of sex discrimination can any difference be discerned between the judgments of all-male federal court panels and those that include a woman.

But there is more. There are now three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan. The first Jewish justice, Louis D. Brandeis, was appointed in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson, and only four other members of the Jewish faith sat on the court before Ginsburg was appointed by President Clinton in 1993. But there is no reason to believe that these justices have based their opinions on their faith any more than the six Catholic justices now also serving on the Court. Incidentally, there are now no protestant justices on the Supreme Court for the first time in history. Considering that it used to be an all-protestant, all-male body (with the first Catholic appointed in 1836), this is a change, indeed.

Elena Kagan, born in 1960, is now the youngest justice on the Supreme Court. She replaced its oldest justice, John Paul Stevens, who was born in 1920. Now five of the justices are Baby Boomers: Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, John Roberts, and Elena Kagan. Age and judicial philosophy are not linked, however. Thomas, Alito and Roberts are conservatives; Sotomayor and Kagan are liberals.  And while Kagan might be more comfortable with a smart phone that her predecessor, her philosophy could well prove to be very similar to his.

All in all, it appears much has changed. But I think we cannot expect to see those surface changes result in a change in the Court's decisions. After several decades--starting in the mid-twentieth century--of the most liberal Supreme Court in history, the Court in the twenty-first century has the appearance of becoming one of our most conservative with a strong conservative bloc of five: Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. The liberal bloc of the Court consists of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and presumably Kagan (although she has yet to write a judicial opinion). Interestingly this bloc includes all of the women and all of the Jewish members of the Court. Unless Kagan, a renowned consensus builder while dean of Harvard Law School, builds a more moderate consensus on the Court, it appears that we can expect a continuation of the very conservative Roberts Court for many years to come.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cousins, Cousins, Everywhere!

I really enjoy genealogy. Seeing my ancestors expand across a family tree, finding out who came to America when, learning from old census information what they did for a living . . . it's pretty cool. I see names repeated across generations, maiden names become given names, and spellings of names morph over time. Each time I find a new tidbit, or fill in another box on my family tree, I feel like a bit of ancient history has come to life again--and who helped make me who I am becomes a little clearer.

I think my interest in family history goes back to stories my great aunt used to tell. She lived to be 92, and had a sharp mind until her dying day. She could tell you names, places, dates, the kind of details that I wish I had recorded back then. She talked about all the distant cousins she had stayed in touch with. They  had last names that didn't sound like anyone I could possibly be related to, and they lived in places I had never been.

When she was a young woman, she packed up a trunk and went from central Ohio to someplace in Kansas to stay with cousins for a while. Who were they? I don't remember her ever telling me their name, or where in Kansas they lived, or even how they were related. I have that lovely old trunk with her name written on it, and a shred of the story, but not the parts that really count.

But now I am doing my own genealogical research. With the help of the internet, much is available to help me to fill in names, dates, occupations. I have found fourth or fifth cousins whose last names do not sound like anyone I could possibly be related to, and they live in places I have never been. They have memories, too, and photos, and records they have found about our mutual ancestors. We help each other fill in the an ever-expanding picture of where we come from, and preserve it for future generations.

It isn't always easy to find an answer, but that makes it all the more rewarding when we unearth something or make a link to someone we never knew existed before.

But I still miss my great aunt's stories.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writing and Rejection

Stephen King was once told that his kind of writing does not sell. John le Carre was described as a writer who "has no future." Gone with the Wind was rejected thirty-eight times. After dozens of rejections, J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book finally found a small UK publisher willing to consider it only at the urging of the CEO's eight-year-old daughter.

Writers and rejection go hand in hand. How we deal with it can determine whether we achieve success, however we define it. But one thing is certain:  no one succeeds who stops trying.

Perhaps the first rejection is the hardest. It dispels the dream of being another Daniel Nava who, on June 12, hit a grand slam home run off of his first major-league pitch. But just because we don't hit a grand slam in our first at bat does not mean we never will.

Sometimes rejection can be a good thing--just as pruning can be good for a bush. It can encourage growth. Many authors have a half-dozen abandoned manuscripts in a drawer before they sell one, but rejection of earlier works could be the motivator the writer needed to do better with each subsequent effort. 

Some writers feel like giving up after a few rejection letters. Why, they reason, should they expose their egos to further bruising? It would be easier if we learned to expect rejection while still hoping for acceptance--a hard balance, but one that would help when the inevitable rejection occurs. Rejection is not really about the author; it is just about the work. It's not personal, but it still feels that way.

I am not arguing that rejection is not discouraging. There is an often-repeated story that Stephen King threw away his manuscript of Carrie because he was so discouraged by repeated rejection. Supposedly it was his wife who rescued it from the trash. It helps to have people who believe in us--but we must also believe in ourselves.

The higher we set our goals, the harder it can be to reach them--and the longer it can take. But we're only letting ourselves down if we let a little failure keep us from continuing to try. 

So, when we get a rejection, we should try to look upon it as a disappointment, but not a failure. And we should keep going--keep striving. For that is the only way we can truly succeed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Red Sox Faithful

Back before 2004, I used to say that Red Sox fans made the best spouses (or partners, or friends). The reason was simple. The Red Sox had not won a World Series in eighty-six years. EIGHTY-SIX YEARS! They started the twentieth century with five World Series wins, but after 1918--nothing. My dad was born, educated, served in a war, married, raised children, retired, and died without ever seeing a Red Sox World Series victory. 

It's not that the Sox didn't make it into the World Series. They did--every so often. In 1946 they lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1967 they lost in seven games . . . to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1975 they lost--in seven games--to the Cincinnati Reds. And in 1986 they lost--yet again in seven games--to the New York Mets. 

They always made us think that they had a chance. In '86, with two out in the ninth inning, the ball rolled through the legs of Bill Buckner at first base. Buckner was injured and should have been on the bench, but the manager wanted him on the field to celebrate the first World Series victory in (then) sixty-eight years. But it didn't happen.

Still, year after year, the Red Sox fans stuck with them.

The Sox had many successes. The last player to bat .400 in a season was Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. The last player to win baseball's Triple Crown (leading the league in home runs, RBIs, and batting average in a single year) was Red Sox Carl Yastrzemski. Countless others have distiguished themselves in legendary Fenway Park and gone on to the Hall of Fame. No wonder fans around the country have flocked to games, making up the "Red Sox Nation" so dubbed by Boston Globe feature writer Nathan Cobb.  And the Red Sox usually made it interesting--getting into the playoffs, or just missing them, or dramatically folding in September after a hot summer season. 

But they broke our hearts. Year after year after year. 

We still loved them. We still watched them. We still believed in them. 

That's why Red Sox fans make good spouses. They know how to hang in there through all the ups and downs. And they are loyal beyond all reason. 

Now the Red Sox have given us not one, but two, World Series championships in this decade--one in 2004 (in four games against the St. Louis Cardinals), and another in 2007 (in four games against the Colorado Rockies). 

Today's children are like those of a century ago--being brought up in a world where "Red Sox" is a synonym for "Winner" (despite what Yankee fans might say). The Red Sox currently hold the record for most consecutive sell-outs at a home game--and it is growing every game.

But this year the Red Sox are not doing as well as the Johnny-come-lately fans have come to expect. Their hitting is not as overpowering. Their fielding could use some work. And their win/loss record to date is an un-awe-inspiring 31/24, putting them third in the American League Eastern Division.

So, what will happen now? Will all the new fans brought in by the wins of '04 and '07 stick with them? Will they become imbued with the same irrational loyalty of the fans of old? Or, as many predict, with the sell-out streak end--as all streaks must--and the once robust "Nation" retreat into more of a "city-state?"

Time will tell. But I, for one, will remain loyal and true . . . as will my spouse.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A wonderful week for a book lover . . .

As you may know, this was the week not only for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, but also for BookExpo America. I attended both, and am very glad that I did.

I share Emily P. W. Murphy's take on the Indie Book Awards. The setting, the people--and the medals--made for a wonderful evening. It was well worth the round-trip bus ride into New York from eastern Pennsylvania to spend time with a roomful of winning authors, editors, publishers, and illustrators. It is a hackneyed saying that a writer's life is a solitary one. It is one reason many of us choose to be part of a writers group. And it is another reason that events, such as this awards ceremony, are so beneficial--giving us a chance to mix with the many talented people brought together for an evening. We exchanged cards, promotional materials, and congratulations, for everyone there had something to celebrate.

The next day, I went to BookExpo for my first-ever visit. After a three-hour drive into the city (rush hour adding at least an hour to the trip), three author friends (Emily P. W. Murphy, Sally Wyman Paradysz, and Ralph Hieb) and I arrived at the Jacob Javits Center in New York--a five-block long building with over 675,000 square feet of exhibit space. I've always been impressed with the architecture by I. M Pei, but until then, I had only seen it from the outside.

Once inside, the BEA folks had a beautifully efficient registration process. BEA issued online registrants a barcode. All we needed to do was print it out and bring it to the convention center, have it scanned, and pick up our nametags. Mine was labeled "Published Author," but I saw many that listed (for BEA) much more important roles in the industry: Librarian, Bookseller, Publisher, Literary Agent, Reviewer, etc. If I had harbored any illusions of importance after the Indie Award ceremony, they were dashed at BEA. While one might argue that without authors, the rest of these folks would be out of a job, the reverse is also true. Any authors who were not signing books to give away were definitely not the stars of this show.

No--the BEA is designed primarily for booksellers to connect with each other, learn about new trends, and discover new titles and services. Don't get me wrong--a lowly published author can still have a blast. I stood in line for autographed books--lots and lots of books. Among the four of us, we filled my trunk with loot!

There was a lot of energy in the room, and people were almost universally friendly. Book people. Gotta love 'em. And as the day went on I learned how to survive BEA.

The hard, convention center floors were covered with a thin carpeting. Since we spent nearly the entire day on our feet, either walking back and forth across the convention center or standing in line, my feet soon felt desperately in need of better shoes. And I'd worn my most comfortable walking shoes. Some exhibitors, such as the Spanish Language books area, had brought in very plush carpeting. It was wonderful to have the extra cushioning as the day went on, so even though I cannot read Spanish, I seemed to find many opportunities to walk slowly through that area.

Many places were clearly expecting to handle substantial orders from bookstore owners and librarians. They had set up tables and chairs for salespeople to help buyers pour through their catalogs. But, if there were no buyers around an empty table, even a published author was allowed to rest for a few moments. The kind salespeople even apologized when evicting us to make a sale.

Some exhibitors offered lunch in their sales areas--but only for book buyers. I couldn't blame them. There were other areas in the Expo where one could find food. But the day was hot and, despite air conditioning, the Expo floor was humid. So, I learned that the best place to go for refreshment was the lemon ice stand. (I hope they have it every year.)

There was a large corner of the exhibit floor dedicated to book signings. They set up half-hour or one-hour time slots for authors to sign free books for attendees. I was glad I'd done my homework, deciding which books I most wanted, before going to BEA. For the most popular authors (e.g. Sarah, Duchess of York, Jan Brett, Gary Trudeau, and many others) you needed to go very early and stand in line to get a ticket to be allowed to stand in line later for an autograph. It's Darwinian. And, living in Pennsylvania, I did not get there in time to get one of those coveted tickets. No matter. There were lots of interesting authors for whom no ticket was required.

During book signings, most authors took their time with each person, chatting, and making them feel special as they personalized each book. But the lines for autographs could be very long, and the time allotted for book signings was limited. If you didn't get to the line early enough, they could run out of books--or out of time--before you got to the author's table. So, I learned to prioritize. I chose the authors that were most important to me, and got in their lines first. If the line moved swiftly, I might still be able to get another book signed during the same period from an author with a shorter line. And even if the lines were too long, as for James Patterson and Rick Springfield, I had the pleasure of seeing them signing books.

I was especially happy to get books signed by Scott Turow, Len Berman, and the two Ghost Hunters: Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. Scott Turow and I talked about how many of us lawyers have gone into other pursuits while he signed my copy of Innocent. I told the Ghost Hunters they made me wish I had a haunted house just so I could call them in. (Grant said he did, too!) I asked Len Berman how many of my beloved Red Sox made it into his book, The Twenty-Five Greatest Baseball Players of All Time, due out in September. He said two: Cy Young and Ted Williams. (I reminded him that we could also claim the Babe!)

It was great fun, but as you accumulate those books, you need someplace to carry them. (No wonder you get more tired as the day goes on!) I found a backpack to be very useful, since the show rules forbade rolling suitcases. The old back started to ache, and it was a bit warm, but it was a very efficient way to get through the show. I didn't need to bring any canvas bags--although I had. Vendors gave them out all over the floor, in addition to the BEA bags available at the door.

While standing in line--which takes up about half your time at BEA--it was fun to talk to the others in line with me.  I was glad I carried the promotional materials for my most recent book--and my business card. You never knew who might be standing next to you.

I came home exhausted, but looking forward to going to BEA again. Perhaps one day I'll be signing books as well--who knows? Maybe I'll see you there!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Don't Go Into the Garage!

Okay--our garage never looked like the ones you see on TV--neatly arranged tools that hang over a tidy workbench, a pristine floor, onto which no oil has ever dripped, swept clean of all dust. Nope. Our garage is full of stuff--some ours, some others'. We have the usual bicycles, lawn mowers, snow blowers, and garden tools, but we also have hundreds of pounds of birdseed, deer food, discarded furniture from various dorm rooms, an old refrigerator now dedicated to holding soda, and unopened boxes from my mother's last move, our kids' last moves, and probably other people's moves, too. Can't be sure.

But it's not all the "stuff" that is keeping us out of the garage. We have a squatter living in there!

Shocking, I know. But we've had squatters before. For a while there were wild cats that we (blush) fed and almost tamed before some neighbor called animal control to capture them. We have had a few squirrels and raccoons come in looking for birdseed. We even had a coyote take shelter there once. (Since then we have been more careful about keeping the garage door closed.)

But apparently we have not been careful enough. This spring our squatter got in somehow anyway, and she--yes, it's a female--isn't about to leave. And if we try to go into the garage, she will attack!

We could probably take her, but we're concerned about her offspring. They are very young and undoubtedly impressionable, and clearly still in need of their mother. And it's not really their fault that they are trespassing.

Our squatter, you see, is a bird of undetermined species, and her offspring are three tiny chicks. The nest is on a shelf at the top of our tool rack--right by the inside door of our garage. She flew into the garage and spent many days there earlier this spring. I guess she liked it. And why not? It's where we keep our birdseed. When it came time to build her nest, she built it there--despite our efforts to keep the outer garage door closed to wildlife.

Now we keep the outer door open all the time--day in and day out--for the bird to come and go at will. We have adapted, though. We now use the front door instead of going through the garage to get into the house. We now store soda in the kitchen. But if one of our kids needs something they remember using in their last dorm room--well, they had better wear a helmet. That garage is bird country!

The mama bird is not always on her nest, though. Once, while she was out foraging, we were able to get this photo of three baby bird bottoms. They're so tiny! We, and our indoor cats, enjoy hearing their cute, birdy chirps from the other side of the door. But mama has made it clear--beyond that point it is strictly DO NOT DISTURB!

I just hope the raccoons and the coyote are smart enough to leave them alone.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Next Generation Indie Book Award Winner!

Hooray! We found out this week that the Bethlehem Writers Group's collection of Christmas stories, A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales, has won First Place awards in TWO categories in the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards: for Short Story - Fiction and Anthology.

I remember when we first considered the possibility of publishing a collection of our short stories. We decided to make them Christmas stories because of our location in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, known to locals as "Christmas City." It took many months of hard work by many members of the group, and was well received throughout the past holiday season. And now, in addition to our two Indie Book Awards, we also won Honorable Mention in the 2010 DIY Book Awards.

Our book is an eclectic collection of twenty-three short stories--something for every taste. It is available in hardcover, paperback, or kindle versions through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and our online bookstore. It makes a great gift!

Happy reading--and gifting--everyone! And congratulations to the Bethlehem Writers Group!

Back row: Emily P. W. Murphy, Paul Weidknecht, Will Wright, Cindy Kelly, Ralph Hieb, Carol L. Wright, Courtney Annicchiarico
Front row: Jeff Baird, Carol A. Hanzl Birkas, Jo Ann Schaffer, Sally Wyman Paradysz
Not pictured: Jerome W. McFadden, Headley Hauser, and Stanley W. McFarland

Thursday, April 29, 2010

When is an Eleven Year Old an Adult?

Jordan Brown, an eleven-year-old boy, got up one morning, had his breakfast, picked up the shotgun his father gave him for Christmas, and shot his sleeping, pregnant, soon-to-be step-mother in the back of the head, killing her and her unborn child.

Then the boy and the woman's seven-year-old daughter boarded a school bus together. The girl asked Jordan what the loud noise had been. He told her it was nothing.

It sounds almost incredible, but prosecutors in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, believe it happened in the death of Kenzie Marie Houk.

At school that day, no one noticed Jordan Brown exhibiting any unusual behavior. He was arrested later in the day, but has maintained the he didn't do it. It makes one shiver to think that a child could be guilty of such a cold-blooded act of violence. But his cool demeanor could, of course, simply be because he is innocent.

Whether Jordan Brown is guilty of premeditated murder is something that the courts will determine. But what has already been decided is that this pre-teen will be tried as an adult.

As an eleven year old, Jordan could have been tried as a juvenile. If he was found to have been the one who killed Houk, he would be found "delinquent," not "guilty" as is the case in adult court. He would be sent to a juvenile facility whose goal would be to rehabilitate him rather than to punish him. He could be held no longer than his twenty-first birthday, when he would be released, whether he was rehabilitated or not.

Pennsylvania law allows an offender as young as age ten to be charged as an adult if the circumstances of the crime warrant. In this case, the prosecutor believed he had no choice but to request that the court charge Jordan as an adult. The act, according to the prosecutor, was premeditated. Jordan allegedly brought his youth-sized shotgun down from his upstairs bedroom that morning. When the seven-year-old noticed it, he went back upstairs and concealed it under a blue blanket when he returned downstairs. A blue blanket with a shotgun hole in it was found near the body in a downstairs bedroom. If true, this behavior would meet any standard for premeditation.

Jordan's father has argued passionately that his son is not guilty, and should be tried as a juvenile, allowing the father to secure his release on bond. The judge, however, agreed with the prosecution. Jordan Brown, now twelve, will stand trial as an adult.

As a result of this ruling, Jordan Brown can be held in the county jail with adult offenders until his trial. If he is found guilty of first-degree murder, he would be sent to an adult prison with more adult offenders where he would spend the rest of his life without possibility of parole. He could not, however, be sentenced to death. While Pennsylvania does provide for the death penalty in such cases, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that execution of offenders under the age of sixteen constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

The prosecutor argued that staying in a juvenile facility until he was twenty-one would not provide sufficient time to rehabilitate Jordan Brown. Some other observers say Jordan is just plain evil, suggesting he is a sociopath for whom there is no hope. His father says he is an "all-American boy" who is innocent and does not understand what is happening to him.

What troubles many about such cases is that children the age of Jordan Brown might not, and some would say cannot, have the intellectual and emotional maturity to understand the consequences of their actions. They do not yet comprehend death, and so cannot comprehend the gravity of shooting someone in the head.

I remember a story that made the news several years ago about two young brothers, about twelve and fourteen years old if memory serves, who were hunting together. Each had a shotgun, and they were walking single file through the woods, with the elder brother in the lead. As they trudged along, the younger boy decided it would be funny to shoot the hat off his brother's head, as he had seen in cartoons on television. Not surprisingly, the older brother died instantly. There was no evil intent in that case. Clearly this was a child exercising childish judgment without understanding the probability of lethal consequences of his actions. But I wonder if he would ever be able to forgive himself.

Could Jordan fully comprehend how serious his actions were, or did he think shooting Houk was somehow an acceptable expression of anger? Could he appreciate how permanent death is, let alone how horrific?

When is an eleven year old an adult?

What do you think? Should the punishment fit the crime or the criminal?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What do you read? What do you write?

A friend recently asked me the question, "What do you read?" It's not all that unusual a question among bibliophiles, but it got me thinking.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and always have, in a variety of subject matters. I am intrigued by learning more about areas in which I know little, and reading other authors' takes on subjects I know well. My favorite subjects are history, politics, current affairs, and law, with some memoir thrown in.

For fiction, my favorite authors come from varied literary traditions and genres.

Number one on my list has to be Jane Austen. I love rereading her novels, watching the televised versions of her stories, and sharing commentary on both with other "Janeites." I enjoysome of the many spin-off, Austen-esque novels available from modern writers. I recently became a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), and love the chance to be among others who feel the same way.

And, since we're talking about the classics, Charles Dickens has to be a very close second. There's a reason every school child still reads his work--or should.

I enjoy literary fiction, but confess that I most often choose to read popular fiction.

Who can argue with the success of J.K. Rowling? Her Harry Potter books are entertaining, and, for the most part, an excellent example of what fiction writing should be: a sympathetic, damaged, protagonist in conflict with an antagonist of equal or greater strength, surrounded by an assemblage of memorable characters, and a story that grabs and holds the reader's attention.

Jasper Fforde is an author I might have overlooked but for a friend. Based on his recommendation alone, I purchased two books by Fforde before reading anything he had written. That is a remarkable leap of faith for me, but one worth taking as he has become one of my favorites. (The Eyre Affair is the one to start with.)

I am on my third Connie Willis book in a row. After reading The Doomsday Book, I moved on to To Say Nothing of the Dog, and now to Lincoln's Dreams. From there I'll go to Bellwether.

Jan Karon's characters and small-town settings keep me coming back. And, although not shelved in fiction, James Herriot's tales of the connection between humans and their animals are old favorites.

I have always enjoyed mysteries, since my first Nancy Drew, in part because I want to puzzle them out before the protagonist does. I will read at least one book in any cozy mystery series I can find--as much for research as for pleasure.

Looking at the list above, it seems I prefer classics, sci-fi/fantasy, and mystery. I would never have described myself as a sci-fi/fantasy reader. I don't think of myself that way, but Rowling, Willis, and Fforde wouldn't make the list if I weren't.

They say you should write what you read, yet I do not try to write fantasy. I do not consider myself well versed enough in the genre to consider dabbling in it. I write mystery, and hope that others will try to puzzle them out before the protagonist does--but fail!

How about you? What do you read? And what do you write?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

To E-Book, or Not to E-Book

I am a book lover, as are most of my friends. Like them, I like the feel of a book in my hand, the scent of the paper, the touch of the page. I like being able to flip back and forth in a book, rereading a passage, checking a fact, and somehow knowing where on the page I first read it.

You can't get quite the same experience from an e-book. In fact, many book lovers believe that reading an e-book is a sort of sacrilege. I understand that. Really, I do. But . . .

I make no apologies. I own a Kindle. In fact, we are now a four-Kindle family--and we love them.

Since our house already has bookshelves lining nearly every wall, and each bookcase is stuffed with books that overflow into stacks on the floor, by the bed, on top of the desk, and on every table or other flat surface, the idea of getting a book without having to store it somewhere is pretty attractive. It is especially wonderful as an option for those books I know I will only read once. You know the kind. They are the ones that you gobble up like potato chips, but do not need to preserve for posterity--or even pass along to a friend.

And the Kindle is wonderfully portable. I took it with me to the doctor's office yesterday, and it helped me pass the time (over an hour and a half altogether) spent waiting to see someone. Normally, I would bring a book, but with an hour and a half, what if I had finished the book, and all that was available to me were old copies of People magazine? With the Kindle, I carried many books with me, and could get more almost immediately if needed.

Best of all from my husband's perspective, when I read the Kindle in bed, the book light doesn't flash in his eyes, nor does the paper rustle, every time I turn a page. And the cat cannot pull the bookmark out of place. It's not that I have abandoned purchasing traditionally-published books, but I am happy to be among those reading e-books as well.

Yet, it seems everywhere I look these days, people are writing about the end of publishing as we know it. According to the apocalyptic predictions, because of e-publishing the traditional model is dead. Soon, no books will appear in hard copy, bookstores will close, publishers will no longer offer advances to authors, and, worst of all, unknown authors will never get a contract to have a book published.

It sounds a bit hysterical when one considers that e-books currently make up about 3% of the book market. For a few years there weren't many e-book readers out there, but in the past six months both the Barnes and Noble Nook and the Apple iPad have come out, making it likely that the number of e-book buyers will increase. Publishers Lunch, a daily email newsletter, has devoted several columns to this question. In one, it noted that "Stephen King sees 40% of fiction and 25% of non-fiction sales as e-books," by 2019. [December 28, 2009] Still, does that mean that the publishing world is coming to an end?

If you have been following the juggling for position among publishers and sellers of e-books over the past few months, you know that the industry is having a hard time adjusting to its new pressures and opportunities. The price of e-books, discounts to sellers, the agency model, and author royalties are all a concern to agents, authors, and consumers as well.

Perhaps the book industry should read the book Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. It offers perspective on adapting to change in work and in life.

Ironically, it's not available as an e-book.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Novel Is Great!

Great news!

I went to my writers group on Tuesday evening to hear their feedback on my work in progress. Guess what! They LOVED it. They said it was the BEST THING THEY HAD EVER READ. They extolled it as READY FOR PUBLICATION!

Then I sent my agent a copy, and she was THRILLED! She said I could expect a SIX-FIGURE ADVANCE, and that it was certain to hit the NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST and receive a PULITZER PRIZE!

April Fools!

When did you catch on? Was it the advance or the Pulitzer that gave me away?

While the second paragraph above is pure fantasy, the first paragraph is a flat-out lie! But what good would my writers group be to me if they had given me that kind of review? As all authors know--no manuscript is EVER perfect. What the group did, though, was give me some helpful comments on pacing, characterization, and description. For that I thank them.

There is more hard work ahead, but it is work I love. I am happy to go back to my novel and make it better, because the thing they did NOT do is tell me it was irretrievably bad. I also thank them for that.

And that's no April Fools!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Writing for stage and screen

In a couple of days, would-be screen writers and playwrights will participate in Script Frenzy--a thirty-day effort to create one hundred pages of original scripted material during the month of April. (You can learn more at:

While I have never attempted to write for stage or screen, over fifteen thousand others have decided to take the challenge. I know from participating in the sister challenge, National Novel Writing Month, in several past Novembers, that it takes an enormous amount of focus and will to accomplish such a feat. I have great respect for those making the attempt, and will cheer them on from the sidelines.

After all, the world needs more good scripts. I don't know about you, but with more television channels, and thus more entertainment hours to fill, it seems good writing is harder than ever to find. In fact, many programs suffer from one of several ailments.

Sitcoms often fall ill with "double pneumonia"--where the double-entendre is the only tool writers use to leave the audience breathless with laughter. Unfortunately for audiences, this condition is seldom infectious, and usually leaves viewers in a mirthless catatonia accompanied by a laugh track.

Dramas appear to be more susceptible to "Repetoid Arthritis." It is a stiffness caused by repeating plots from other dramas from years past. This is particularly the case with police dramas that sometimes also suffer from "RecysCSItis," a painful ailment caused by recycling CSI episodes.

Movies are not immune to these illnesses, either. Many suffer from "Heartburn" from too many trite relationships or "Technothrombosis" defined as a film so clogged with technology as to prevent any story from coming through.

And the Broadway stage? Some would say it has flatlined. It is the place Disney movies go into the afterlife, and "revival" of works that left only weeks before no longer seems out of the ordinary.

So, go for it, writers. Write your scripts. Your new, fresh voices are needed. You are all that stands between us and a host of illnesses, or even worse--more "reality" shows!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Moving out, moving in, moving on

My mother is moving into an assisted living apartment this month.

It's not that she is leaving the house where I grew up or anything, so the move is not laden with all the angst of losing the family homestead. She is moving from an "independent living" apartment to a "personal care" apartment in the same retirement complex.

It couldn't be much easier. They're giving us most of a month to clear out the old place while she gets settled in the new. While the new apartment is smaller, most of her furniture will fit. They are very supportive there--trying to make Mom feel at home. She will get more help with her medications, three meals a day, and they'll even do her laundry. In many ways, it could not be a better move.

What is she losing? Not much in real terms. She no longer has a patio garden, but she had stopped tending it. She no longer has her bird feeders, but she had stopped filling them. She no longer has a full kitchen, but all she made there was coffee and cinnamon toast in the morning and an occasional lunch of microwaved leftovers. She used her oven to store groceries.

But her move still makes me sad.

It is not just the fact that the walk to the old dining room had become so long that she never went anymore, asking that the one meal provided each day be brought to her apartment. It isn't that she now needs a walker or a transport chair to make any but the shortest trips. It isn't even that she had become so confused by her medications that she needs someone to bring them to her four times a day to make sure she takes the right ones at the right times. These are the obvious signs of her growing older.

As I go through the things that will not go into her apartment, though, I see other evidence of her gradual decline. As her memory failed, she made hundreds of notes to herself. The older ones were about whom to call to have dry cleaning picked up and what places would deliver food. Newer ones were dozens of notes with my phone number, and reminders of how to dial the phone. This is the woman who taught me to use a phone, and now it is almost beyond her ability to use one herself. In the six years she lived there, she went from a person who drove, made her own appointments and kept them, and really could live independently, to one who has given up her car, cannot keep track of her calendar, and can barely manage with an enormous support system around her.

She is still better off than many in her facility. She can bathe herself. She can dress herself. She can find her way to the dining room. But she cannot remember how to turn on her television, and has forgotten that there is a list of the channels she would most enjoy taped to the back of her remote control. She cannot track a conversation, and ends up in a feedback loop of asking the same questions over and over. She has lost the ability to follow what she reads; no magazines or newspapers come to her door anymore. It is not just her apartment size that is shrinking--so is her world.

The last thing she would ever want is to be a burden. That is the reason she decided to move into the retirement facility six years ago. They guarantee her care for the rest of her life.

While she is never a burden, she is a responsibility. I am the only one of her four children who is within three hundred miles of her. Only I, along with my wonderful family, am in a position to keep her world from becoming even smaller, or her days from becoming a monotonous string of emptiness. I try to keep the more distant family alive in her memory, even though she sometimes has trouble recognizing their names or even their faces.

And one day, I know, she will have trouble recognizing me. As sad as this day is, that one will be much worse.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deciding to write

How much of becoming a writer is due to choice?

I have known many writers who have told me that they had no choice in the matter. They HAD to write. It was what they were born to do--and without it they would suffer severe psychic or physical pains. I listen to them and wonder why I don't feel that way.

I have always been a writer. I did a little creative writing when I was young, but when I went to college, I chose to major in political science. It required that I write a lot, but for term papers and essay exams. After college I went to law school where clear, concise writing was essential. But neither college nor law school required me to do any creative writing. Research, analysis, and critical thinking were the skills that I honed.

After law school, I did a stint as a law book editor, acquiring a more discriminating eye and sharper scalpel. Then, as a practicing attorney, every day required that I do a lot of writing: correspondence, pleadings, briefs. Next I joined academia. As a professor and pre-law advisor, I have written lectures, articles, speeches, and even a book.

Apparently writing is part of my DNA--or at least a part of my everyday life. Perhaps I never feel the requirement to write simply because I am always writing something.

But writing fiction is something I have taken up relatively recently. So is fiction writing a choice or calling?

It is probably a bit of each. I love reading really good fiction. Being carried off by the written word into another reality that stays with you long after closing the book is an experience I have loved since childhood. The challenge of creating that experience for others appeals to me in ways that writing nonfiction never could.

And it is a challenge. Every page, every paragraph, every word dares me to make my writing better. I get out my scalpel and my editor's eye and try to sculpt the words in ways I never did with nonfiction. Academic writing is a skill; fiction writing is an art.

So, for me, writing fiction is a choice--a choice of how to answer my calling.

How about you? If you write, is it a choice or a calling?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Are blogs worth it?

As anyone can see, I am new to this blogging thing. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I am also new to Twitter and Facebook.

I could see right away how Facebook could be useful in getting or staying in touch with people at a distance. Since I joined, I have seen how it is also fun for contact with people you see every day--or at least every week or so. But blogs and Twitter? I couldn't see the point.

I used to think blogs were only for people who had an overabundant ego and thought the minutiae of their lives to be so interesting that the whole world would like to read it. But as I become more immersed in the blogosphere, I have learned a lot about how useful blogs can be.

I now follow blogs from many sources that I find extremely interesting. For instance Writers Digest has a blog that I follow on Facebook that offers advice on writing, editing, and marketing for authors. While I do not take everything they say as law, I find it useful to read what others are thinking about the craft. And, occasionally I have found answers to questions I had not been able to resolve from other sources.

Publishers' Marketplace is another terrific resource. It helps me stay informed about the world of publishing--its trends, concerns, and prospects for the future. While one must pay a fee to be a full-fledged member of PM, they offer a free newsletter every weekday called "Publishers' Lunch" sent directly to your email inbox.

The blogs of other authors, when chosen carefully, can also be a terrific source of information and inspiration. (One must chose judiciously, though, or the entire day can be consumed by reading others' blogs, and not getting any of one's own writing done.)

So count me as a convert. I am happy to admit that my prior prejudice against blogs was unjustified.

Now if I could only figure out the point of Twitter!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Visit to the Morgan Library

I had never been to the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York City before today. In fact, I really didn't know it existed until recently. But when a fellow Jane Austen fan talked about its wonderful exhibit of Austen's letters, first editions, and even a partial manuscript, it piqued my interest. When my daughter, Emily, told me she was intent on going, we decided to make a day of it.

Driving into New York was easy from my home in eastern Pennsylvania. It was a warm and sunny day for early March--just right for a road trip. Route I-78 took us nearly the whole way to the Holland Tunnel, and once on the island finding the museum was easy. Parking is usually a problem, but today there was a free, empty space for us right across the street from the Morgan Library. We entered, paid our admission, and went right for the Jane Austen exhibit.

It was an amazing collection. Most of Austen's letters have been lost, but the ones that still exist give us a peak into the real-life world of one of the best novelists in the English language. This exhibit included many of the remaining letters of Jane to her sister, Cassandra, wherein she related her activities, thoughts, and concerns. While Cassandra had "edited" some of the letters by literally cutting out references to family members, one could get a sense of the woman who wrote them. She was intelligent, observant, and unlikely to suffer fools easily. I think I would have liked her.

Jane's handwriting was small, even, and precise, despite her having used a quill. She made the most of her precious paper, squeezing in lines on the margins, or even writing a few lines perpendicular to the rest of the page when she ran out of room. The last part of the exhibit I read was a heart-wrenching letter from Cassandra to their niece, Fanny, to notify her of Jane's death, at the age of forty-one, from causes that are still undetermined. It was written over 190 years ago, but it still made me sad.

After the Austen exhibit, we still had some time before the library closed, so we decided to look at J. Pierpont Morgan's library.

I am not sure what I thought it would be, but the reality far exceeded any possible expectations. There were three rooms open to the public: the librarian's office, J. Pierpont Morgan's "study," and the main library room. The first of these was impressive. The librarian's desk is surrounded by antiques and a collection of books--pretty much as one would expect. The study, though, was amazing. It was surrounded by shelves filled with books, red silk damask walls, an enormous fireplace, portraits and other artwork, and an adorned 16th century coffered wooden ceiling that had been brought from Europe and fitted for the room. Track lighting and state-of-the-art security and fire suppression systems had been attached to the ceiling, but it retained its sense of age and history. The study was once called the "most beautiful room in America." J. Pierpont Morgan spent much of his time there, entertaining notable guests, smoking cigars, and playing solitaire.

As grand as the study was, it was nothing in comparison to the main library on the other side of the rotunda. It has three stories of inlaid walnut bookcases housing Morgan's collection of important books from the past five hundred years, including three of the forty-eight Gutenberg Bibles known to still exist--more than in any other single collection. One was on display when we were there. The Morgan Library must be on the to-see list for every bibliophile.

One inescapable impression from the Morgan Library is the enormous wealth it took to amass such a collection. I, for one, am grateful that J. Pierpont Morgan, and his son J. P. Morgan, chose to use their wealth to assemble these pieces of literary history and mastery together, and then to make them available to the public.

I encourage you to learn more about the Morgan Library at, or if you are able to visit New York, to stop and spend a few hours at Madison Avenue and 36th Street.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The long-form critique

I wrote my first "novel" when I joined National Novel Writing Month in 2006. The challenge was to write fifty-thousand words in the thirty days of November. Somehow, despite work and family and holiday interruptions, I made it. Before December first arrived, I passed the 50K mark, but I had not completed my story. After a short break for the holidays, however, I returned to my manuscript and finished it the following February to the cheers of friends and family. It was awful, but the first draft was done. Then I set it aside.

Since then I participated in NaNoWriMo three more times, "winning" all but once. But I never went back to that first Nano-novel. Well, that's not exactly true. I edited and rewrote several of the early chapters and brought them to my writers group for a critique. I honed and sharpened until I was reasonably happy with them, but I never got past about chapter five . . . until now.

This year, my writers group has started a new sub-group: our long-form critique group. We review up to one-hundred pages from two authors each month. Every member of the subgroup is expected to give each submission a careful, close edit, looking not just for word choice and quality of description, but for character growth, story arc, use of setting, consistency of voice, and the myriad other things that distinguish a manuscript from a publishable work.

It is a grueling process both for the reviewer and the reviewed. The reviewer knows that he or she must focus intently to understand what is working in the manuscript, and try to find suggestions for how to fix what is not. The person whose work is under review needs to sit for an hour and a half and listen to how far short their wonderful gift to literature still falls, and how much work they still have to do.

And they hear it all. "I don't like your main character." "People don't talk that way." "I wouldn't have read past page ten if I didn't have to." These are real comments from our first two months of long-form meetings. We lay it all out: the scary, blunt, harsh-sounding, and--we hope--helpful comments. One who has been through it looks at those of us who have not and says simply, "Be afraid. Be very afraid!"

March is my month to go. I have dusted off that first Nano-novel, and am trying to edit it past the first five chapters. Believe me, beyond here, there be dragons. Since one of the time-honored tenets of NaNoWriMo is to "turn off your internal editor" and write with all your might, an awful lot of bad writing sneaks into those fifty-thousand words.

So February has been MyNoEdMo--My Novel Editing Month. Working under the deadline of March 1 to submit my one-hundred pages has me editing with all my might. And while I look forward to getting some feedback, and learning what more I need to do to make it a marketable piece of fiction, I would be kidding you if I didn't admit that I am very afraid.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How wonderful to be part of a writers group!

It is a truth universally acknowledged . . . that writing is a solitary activity. But does that mean it has to be lonely?

I think most authors would agree that at times it must. But we also need a little help from our friends. In my case, much of that help comes from my family; my husband, daughter, and brother are all writers. But as wonderful as these people are, they love me, so when I ask their opinion of a passage, they are unlikely to tell me it stinks.

My writers group is not always so diplomatic. I was struggling with the opening for my new Gracie McIntyre mystery. For some reason, I find that to be one of the hardest parts of the novel to get right. I had written and scrapped several attempts, and finally had a chapter that I thought would do the trick . . . until I took it to a meeting of the Bethlehem Writers Group.

"It's death, Carol!" one member said.

Really? Death?

Okay, it's a mystery, but that wasn't quite what I was going for. I was hoping for a great hook, or perhaps a chapter with a lot of potential. But no. It was just plain bad.

I had to laugh. That particular member never pulls her punches, but if my skin is too thin to handle that, then perhaps I'm in the wrong business. And isn't it better that I found out then?

I scrapped that chapter, of course, and took a completely new tack, starting the novel in a different place altogether. No one who reads the book will ever know how bad it might have been. Of course, if it had stayed that bad, no one would read the book at all!

So thank you members of the Bethlehem Writers Group for your support, your insight, your editorial judgment . . . and even your bluntness!