My Favorite Authors Pitch Their First Pages

I recently sat in a “First Page Reads” session where two agents, an editor and a creative writing professor collaborated to Gong Show writers on their work. Writers were instructed to submit anonymously the first page of a work of fiction. A moderator read each work aloud, while the panel of four followed along from printed copies, stopping the show when one of them found a spot where they would quit reading if the piece were submitted to them for publication.

Writers were expecting constructive feedback on the entire first page. But for the vast majority, it was only some snarky comment after a sentence or two, with the rest of the page not even being read. And it was all done with an air of this is the one right and true viewpoint. Also, without any positives to balance the negatives, or remarks about what was working on the page. This is a major peeve of mine, seeing aspiring writers bullied and discouraged by those who could be helping and encouraging them.

crumpled paper on gray surface

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

I’ve had enough work published, and experienced enough legitimate editing and critique to be able to put the “feedback” in context and not take it to heart. But I could see this wasn’t true for some other participants. Attendees who entered the room buzzing with optimistic anticipation left an hour later looking defeated. At least one was muttering about giving up entirely. Well done, panelists! I can’t believe I paid money for that experience.

And here’s the thing. For every work they scathingly lambasted based on only a couple of sentences, I could think of a book I loved that would not have passed their muster. I imagined some of my favorite authors pitching first pages to this group.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

“That’s enough, Mr. Twain. We don’t need to hear more. So much wrong in one sentence. The character speaks directly to the reader. Just no. Fiction is never written in second person. And the over the top dialect. Nobody has the energy to read that for an entire book. Stick to mainstream English. You know, how regular people (people like us) talk. Next!”

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide.

“Stop, stop, stop. Ms. Hurston, you’re giving the reader no idea what this book is about or even whether a character is going to appear any time soon. This is mere philosophical meandering, not a story. Show us some action. Next!”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

“Mr. Steinbeck, did no instructor ever tell you not to open with weather? You never start a story talking about weather. It’s simply not done. Next!”

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

“Hold up. You’re telling, not showing, Ms. Rowling. Next!”

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”

“The first words of a narrative should never be dialogue, Mr. Rushdie. Next!”

So there you go. Put the literary world in the hands of this panel and we would have none of these wonderful works.

I hope the writers in the room who looked so downcast will come to realize this. I hope they will realize they are in excellent company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Publication Alert: Short Story

Boundless, a publication of the Unbound Book Festival, is a collection of many wonderful stories. I am honored to have one of mine among them. If you’re burning with curiosity to find out what a story called Posthumous Divorce could possibly be about, click on the title (first word of the blog post) to order the book on Amazon.

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DYI Fact Checking. Part One: Intro and Basics

Welcome to my new series, of indeterminate length and structure. With the constant barrage of news and editorials, conflicting statements and charges of fake news, it can feel overwhelming to try to know what’s really true. There are a number of fact-checking websites, but not all of them are equal and I know a few folks who despair of knowing which of those to believe, too.

I am here to tell you there are steps you can take on your own to verify what you read and hear. It may never be possible to pin down 100% every last detail, but many times you can at least get a better idea of the probability of whether a news item is true, false, a  mixture, or something else, such as woefully out of context.

But wait! Why should you trust that I know what I’m talking about? In the end, you’ll have to make your own evaluation. I can tell you I have a job that involves a goodly amount of research. For 14 years, I’ve worked at a public library, and 11 of those years have been in public services, where I answer a fair few reference questions. Training for the job includes identifying primary sources, and evaluating the reliability of other sources.

So, on to the first basic steps of doing your own fact checking. Often, the tools you need to do a quick fact check are right at hand. It isn’t necessarily a complicated process. For the most part, it involves reading with a critical eye and asking the right questions. Here’s a good example:

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How many times have you seen the image above shared on social media? I believe people are not stopping to check it because it seems innocuous, and I guess it is. That’s why I chose it, because it’s not political. First step: stop and think about whether the information presented is likely. In this case, no. Second step: determine if there is an easily accessible source to double-check the accuracy of the information. Why, yes! Look at a calendar. Often times, it’s that simple.

Let me re-emphasize step one. Stop and think, especially before you share.

Since one of my goals is to ease the feeling that sussing out the facts is overwhelmingly difficult, I’ll leave things here for today. This concludes lesson one.

Thoughts on Three Billboards (Spoilers Abound)

I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri more than a month ago and I’m still processing. In case you missed this in the big print up top, I’m not avoiding spoilers at all.  I specifically plan to discuss the ending. If you want to see the movie, but haven’t yet, this is your chance to stop reading.

Some meta observations first. I have lived nearly my entire life in Missouri. Before I saw the movie, I read a couple of reviews that focused heavily on how things are “in the south.” Cough, cough. I suppose the southern part of the state, bordering on Arkansas and Tennessee, is edging toward being in the south. But if you look at a map or talk to Missouri natives, you will discover that we are, by and large, mid-westerners, in geography and self-identity.

I also read a review by a New Yorker who went on at some length about why there had to be some specific allegory or needed justification for setting a movie in Missouri. What does it mean that it’s set in Missouri? he wondered. Oh hey, maybe it means that Missouri is a place where people live and have stories that involve something other than longing to be in New York. Maybe coastal cities aren’t the default or the norm. Maybe Missouri is as valid a place to set a story as anywhere else. Maybe that’s what it means. Also, to the same critic who thought it seemed artificial for Missourians to quote from literature, I can attest that some of us have read a book or two.

Though not filmed in Missouri, I felt the movie captured the look and feel of the Ozarks area fairly well. I was relieved that none of the actors used a fake, over-the-top drawl. I will nitpick with a line of dialogue when one character, who is supposed to be a Missouri native, says “here in the south.” I guess that might be where the reviewers got the idea.

I found it interesting how the movie is set in the state that is the home of Hallmark Cards, but the story is the antithesis of a typical Hallmark movie. We start with the knowledge that Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred Pierce, is awash in grief-fueled rage over the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter. Though we see a few soft, gentle moments, by the end of the movie she’s still struggling over what to do with the feelings that threaten to pull her under and drown her. She doesn’t come to a full and peaceful resolution of any kind. As a mother, I got the feeling she was never going to stop trying to find something — anything — she could do that would feel like a fierce care-taking of the daughter she could no longer truly help.

This is what made her a real and true and large character, a character with shoulders broad enough to carry such a heavy story. The viewer comes into the story in Mildred’s point of view. It’s easy to identify with her, even as her behavior becomes more and more extreme and violent. Because the first thing we see is the depth of her pain and the depth of her love.

Chief of police William Willoughby is the target of Mildred’s billboard messages. He’s portrayed in a largely sympathetic manner, as someone who looks deep and sees nuance. There’s a genuine warmth and humanity to him. It’s obvious he’s pained by the failure to catch the murderer of Mildred’s daughter. I’ve seen a lot written about him as the most unambiguously good character in the movie. BUT. Not to me. I’ve been so surprised by something that goes unmentioned over and over again that I’m starting to wonder if I imagined it. I don’t think I did.

There’s a scene with a conversation between Mildred and Willoughby, after she tussles with the dentist, where it’s revealed her ex-husband had formerly been a member of the local police force, presumably under Willoughby’s supervision. And her husband beat her. And Willoughby did not much about it, “reasonably” explaining it was a he said/she said situation, with no proof of anything. Mildred’s billboards and the pain and the grudge against the police chief go back beyond his failure to solve her daughter’s murder. There are layers here, and I’m consistently befuddled that nobody seems to mention this. If Mildred believes he didn’t try hard enough, she has some justification, considering the two of them have a history where he’s failed to help her before. On the other hand, the implication is there that Willoughby wants to make this up to her, too.

Meanwhile there’s Officer Dixon, and the first things we know about him are violent actions he’s taken, or at least everyone believes so. Everyone talks about him inflicting violence on a black citizen. However, he denies it. It’s easy to dislike him immediately. As the movie progresses, we see he does have a penchant for lashing out. But we see all of that before we know much about him as a person. Throughout the story, other characters tease him about being a mama’s boy. It’s not until much later we learn he’s hurting over the loss of his father and has made sacrifices to take care of a dependent mother.

Mildred and Dixon face off throughout the movie, but in the end, when they drive off together as allies on the same quest of vengeance, they don’t seem so different from each other. Two sides of the same coin, more like. I felt as if the film’s writer, Martin McDonagh, created a character arc for me, as a viewer. Both Mildred and Dixon engage in behavior that is just plain wrong. I questioned why I cheered, or at least sympathized with Mildred’s actions, while despising Dixon for his. I believe it was the whole context thing. With Mildred we see the suffering first, but with Dixon not much other than how he has hurt other people. The context of his life fills in later.

If there’s anything I identified as a central message of this movie, it’s this: hurt people hurt people. But not always. When a man who was savagely attacked by Dixon has a chance for revenge, he shows mercy instead. If there’s a glimmer of hope this dark movie offers us, it’s this: hurt people can sometimes rise above hurting other people.

 

 

My Year: Twelve Ways of Looking at 2017

My year in review, in terms of moods and emotions.

January: Anxiety, shock. Impending doom. Grasping at straws of hope, picking up pieces of shattered wishes. The coldest January 20th ever, the world upended. A plunging of the stomach. Fury. Sick fear. Solidarity.

February: Calls and calls and calls. Emails and emails and emails. Postcards and postcards and postcards. Small personal triumphs. Small personal resignations. Heels dug in. Grappling.

March: Nurturing others and myself. Sitting with. Starting seeds: literal physical plants and new beginnings for myself. Trying to allow myself to bloom. Focusing close to home.

April: A few sprouts, a few false starts. A little cutting loose. Seeking of wisdom and camaraderie.

May: Nostalgia. Celebration. Family. Care-taking.

June: Opening. Doing. Self care. Moments of peace and fulfillment.

July: A dreaded ordeal. Survival. Defiance. Resistance. Resilience.

August: Doing. Accomplishing. Revelry. Thoughtfulness.

September: Improving what I can. Projects. Sorting. Aesthetics.

October: Planning and researching. New goals.

November: Setbacks. Doggedness, determination. Grindstone. Head down.

December: Repeatedly dragging myself back from the brink of despair. Grim realizations. Surviving. Teetering. Holding close. Looking for the light, making the light, being the light. 

The Worst Poem I Ever Heard

Poetry Books

Credit: brewbooks. I’m sure their poetry reading was fabulous, unlike the one I’m describing.

I wish I’d said something, after the reading. I wish I’d approached the esteemed professor, though I was a young nobody, not even one of his students. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell him You’re not so enlightened. I wish I’d said to the those heaping praise on him That was some messed up crap. Sometimes I wish I’d shouted out in the middle, while he was still at the mic. I wish I’d booed while others were politely clapping.

The poetry reading was memorable, I’ll give him that. It was the late 80s or early 90s. My blood still boils decades later.

He read a serial killer poem, but not really a serial killer poem. It was about Ted Bundy, in particular, but not really about Ted Bundy. It was about a woman who had a conversation with Ted Bundy without being abducted, but it wasn’t about that, either.

The poet spun a verse about a fat girl who later discovers her girth made her an unattractive target. But think about it. How would she find that out? The poet thought he could get in the head of this young woman he called a girl, whom he referred to as a fat girl. He related her thoughts to us as he divined them — how being a fat girl (and by extrapolation unattractive, joyless, unfulfilled in life because nobody would date her) had only been a curse until that fateful day. But upon realizing her hideous visage (not his words as I remember, but the meaning behind his words as I remember) of fat had saved her, she becomes happy with her looks, for the very first time in her miserable existence. Again, I’m pretty sure miserable existence was not his exact phrase, but was his exact meaning.

At the end, some of us sat stony-faced, unclapping. At least there was that. I hope someone said something to him, showed him the many layers of wrong upon wrong in his poem. A colleague, a nephew, a daughter — someone who could make him listen. I hope he came to know. I hope he never published that poem. I hope he never again read it aloud. I hope he burned that poem. I hope he now carries around ashes of regret for having ever written it.

Listening to Bill McKibben

Last evening, I had the privilege of attending a free talk by Bill McKibben, a leading experts on climate change. He authored one of the first books on the topic to be written for a lay audience. The End of Nature was published in 1989. McKibben is also one of the founders of 350.org. Click the link to see what they’re about.

I want to share my take-aways from what I heard last night.

  • Time is short. Our window of opportunity to act is closing. We have to make big changes as quickly as possible.
  • The silver lining to the above point is that scientists have figured out what we need to do. (Mostly, stop using fossil fuels.) It’s a matter of actually doing it.
  • Oil companies knew about climate change and how bad it would be back in the 1970s and 80s, but they kept it quiet while redesigning all of their offshore rigs to withstand changes in sea level and sea chemistry. (Steam is still coming out my ears.)
  • McKibben believes we need to focus more on policy change than on personal lifestyle changes. If you can’t influence the federal government, then work on your state or city government. Urge universities and retirement funds to divest from oil companies. I get his point that the changes we need to make are so large and the time so short that we can’t reach our goal with only personal lifestyle changes done one person at a time. But I believe he downplayed the importance of it a little too much. One person can influence others and show them it’s possible to live differently, to help overcome resistance to change. One example — many folks in my neighborhood have planted milkweed in the past few years and I saw many more monarchs this summer than I have in recent years.
  • Organize! McKibben gave many examples of average citizens from many countries, races and economic strata joining together to stop environmental destruction. He showed us a photo of a group of kayakers preventing an oil tanker from leaving dock, as one example.
  • Older people should take risks to save the future for the next generations. If you’ve already got a successful career behind you, be the one willing to go to jail instead of a younger person who has more to lose by it. He practices what he preaches, by the way, having been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience.
  • Don’t spend too much time and energy arguing with climate change skeptics. “Don’t ruin Thanksgiving dinner” because some folks are resistant to information and will never change their minds. McKibben said he has two standard responses to climate change skeptics. “I hope you’re right” or “You may not believe in climate change, but it believes in you.”
  • 70% of people do believe in climate change and the need to reverse it. Focus your energies on spurring the believers to action.

I’ve spent the last 24 hours or so thinking about what else I can do. I decided my next step will be adding my name to those calling for our local university to divest from fossil fuel companies. Let’s hurry and save the world, y’all!