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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Poem: Terrific and Welcome News

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I decided I was tired of depressing news, so I made up some of my own. In verse form.

Terrific and Welcome News

Terrific and welcome news:
The glass is more than half full
All our hours are turning to gold
Older is becoming better
Our credit line is expansive
And the bill will never come due
The people before us left the place
Better than they found it
Trolls have all been blocked
And will never bother us again
We can say anything we believe
And receive understanding
Others will listen without critique
The tax refund will be large enough
To donate to charity and take a vacation
All social services are fully funded
And no missiles were fired today
We are not only survivors
We are thrivers
And nothing will ever be bad again

**

Ida Bettis Fogle, 2017

Let’s Hear a Ringy-Dingy for Emma Nutt and Lily Tomlin

Happy Emma Nutt Day! On September 1, 1878, Emma Nutt opened a whole new profession to women by becoming the first female telephone operator. She remained at her job with the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company for more than thirty years.

September 1 also happens to be the birthday of Lily Tomlin, aka Ernestine of the telephone company. Coincidence? Or is there a cosmic order at play here?

Even those of the younger generations who didn’t experience the days of a telephone monopoly and don’t quite get the deal with long-distance calls will see that not everything has changed when it comes to phone companies.

How We Flunked Story Time

may_28_6968_frog_tadpole “Story time saved my sanity.” Thus proclaimed a friend with children much younger than mine. She gushed to me how much her family loves the library, and especially the children’s programs.

This sent my mind into a reminiscence of my own family history. I didn’t reveal to her my shameful secret. But I will confess it here. When my daughter was three and my son a newborn, our family flunked out of story time. At the very library where I now work.

It had to do with the green paper circles. Lily pads you might call them if you were a story time lady presenting a tale about frogs. Or, if you were my then 3-year-old daughter, you might call them wall dots, green steering wheels, round green hats, or frisbees. In her eyes, the possibilities were endless.

“Let’s sit on our lily pads little frogs, while we hear a story!” prompted the cheerful story time lady. 10 or 11 out of the group of 11 or 12 little frogs obediently criss-cross apple sauced on their lily pads.

“Frogs sit *on* their lily pads, not *under* them,” said the story time lady, still cheerfully.

“Mine’s a hat!” said my three-year-old, also cheerfully.

“Okay, well, let’s get the story started,” said the story time lady, gamely.

As the other children were doing the finger plays, my daughter was driving us to the store with the steering wheel that had been so thoughtfully provided. “I’ll drive since you’re holding the baby,” she whispered to me.

“Remember to sit on your lily pads,” prompted the story time lady, a little sternly, as the story ended and she prepared to begin a song. This time she was looking at me, a look that told me I was allowing my kid to Set a Bad Example, and I should begin enforcing the story time rules like a Good Mother.

But she’s not being disruptive, I thought back at her. She only whispered once, right in my ear. If I argue with her, that will be disruptive.

I don’t remember the song, probably something to do with amphibians. I remember I sang along, while wearing a green paper hat, held on my head by my kid. It was only fair that I have a turn, after all. See, I had taught my child about taking turns and sharing. Not a total loser mom, huh?

As a finale, there was a second song. And the kids were allowed more action this time, hopping, a little, in place, on cue. Or in one case, doing a small interpretive dance – The Dance of the Green Circle. My inner being was divided between mortification and fierce pride. I know which side the story time lady came down on, as she threw in an extra demonstration of the proper form of hopping.

As the program ended and parents left hand-in-hand with their children, I saw some other families grouping together, comparing this experience with story times of other weeks. Apparently they had a story time clique. Their offspring had been in training since birth. And here I thought I could bring in my wild child starting at the advanced age of three and have her fit in.

Said child, meanwhile, now that she was allowed to move around and talk freely, was pointing out to me all of the things you could do with a circle of green paper. You could decorate a wall with it. You could tuck in the top of your shirt in back and have a round superhero cape. You could hide your face behind it to play peek-a-boo with a baby. You could use it as a baby blanket. After a minute, my mixed feelings coalesced into amazement at my kid’s mind and attitude – that she could be so excited and could see so many possibilities in circle of paper.

I glanced around at the other families, with their conforming kids, who would have fit right in on that planet in “A Wrinkle in Time” – the one where the children bounced their balls at the exact same time on the exact same schedule every day. Suddenly, they seemed a little, hmmm, soulless might be the word? Those poor moms and dads, seeing the limitations of their merely adequate children exposed in the bright illumination cast by the creative genius shining from my daughter. Yeah, I couldn’t put them through that again.

We’d stick to our informal weekly playgroup and leave the organized story times for those others. I imagined the librarian in charge of the program that day thinking of us as “not story time material.” I suppose some people might look at it as having failed, and at times I have looked at it that way, too, wondering why my kid has such a hard time getting with the program. But I prefer think of it more as not a good fit. See how non-judgmental I’m being about the others’ rigidity and lack of imagination?lilypad

The same dynamic would continue to play out in public school as the years went on. My older kid often had “better” ideas than the teacher about how an assignment should be done. Some teachers loved this and used it to advantage. In those classes, my child learned a lot and accomplished some remarkable creative achievements. Others instructors – I call them lily pad teachers – lived by the philosophy “Rubrick uber alles!” My offspring showed a marked failure to thrive in those classrooms.

I never have completely sorted out my feelings. No, I don’t think the school should have to convert any of their computers from qwerty to Dvorak because one kid think it works better. (Pick your battles, child.) But yes, I do think my then-10th-grader should have been given extra credit instead of a zero on that world history report for having gone so far above and beyond in research and effort, in having a desire to do something that wasn’t a rehash of every other paper that had been written in the same classroom for the past decade.

Eventually the little frog grew strong enough to hop its way out of the public school pond and forge its own path to college, via self-study and a GED. Have I mentioned the college major? – Fisheries and Wildlife. Lack of preschool success at frogdom notwithstanding. I guess it didn’t go on the permanent record.

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What I’m Wearing for the Oscars

Update:  I know there was rampant speculation about what outfit I’d select for the after-party. Breaths were held as everyone wondered what it would be. Would I choose flannel or fleece? Even I hadn’t decided until the very last second. But fleece won the night.

A few words about my chosen ensemble for the evening of the Oscars:

The gray hoodie I’m wearing right now was designed by…um…someone who does marketing for Mark Twain Cave(?) I guess. While the t-shirt underneath harks back to the era when I was on a softball team. The jeans were chosen specially for this occasion because they’re loose enough to allow an extra layer underneath. My jacket is a family heirloom, passed up from son to mother. And the blue fingerless gloves are meant to send a message about the weather.

Things People Actually Said to Me at Work Today

1.
“You got to have the most boring-ass job in the world, working in a library. I don’t know how you stand it.”
You know what some people say when I help them with something they requested? “Thank you.” Hard to believe I know, as it hardly enlightens me as to the desperation of my situation. My reply to the guy was something about how it’s a good thing there are a lot of different types of jobs around for different types of people. I wish I’d said something more along the lines of “Not as boring as you’d think, considering the people we get in here. You never know what someone’s going to say when they come up to the desk.” Which leads me to:

2.
The very next patron who approached the desk: “Do you have any air freshener here.”
Me: “No, we don’t keep anything like that because so many people have allergies to the scent. Why? Is there a problem?”
Him: “Yeah, my friend that I’m here with? I’m sitting next to him at the computer? His feet stink. I took off my shoes to see if it was my feet, but it’s his. I need to spray him or something.”

3.
A gentleman who likes to wear vintage dresses, often with pearls and heels. He’s a regular and he can put together an outfit like nobody’s business. Next time I’m invited to a wedding, I’m asking him what I should wear.
Him: “I’m looking for a book called ‘The Secret Lives of Dresses.'”
Me: “We do have that book. It’s a novel, so it’ll be in fiction.”
Him, crestfallen: “I thought it was non-fiction.”

Just a typical day at the public library.

Notes on Scraps of Paper

Often inspiration for a story or poem strikes when I’m in the middle of something else. My paying job, for instance. I have a habit of scribbling quick notes on scraps of paper, hoping I’ll remember the entire thought later. Sometimes I make notes on a book I’m reading. Sometimes I forget these notes until I rediscover the scrap of paper many weeks or months later. Maybe in the pocket of a pair of pants I haven’t worn in a while, to give a real example.

Here are some notes I just found in my own handwriting. It’s a list (?) on one sheet:

character identification

takes place night

extreme close up on eye

music

clothing – a.p. – true

horror lies in sympathy

What does it all mean? Your guess is as good as mine.