New children’s author, Samantha Smith

New children’s author, Samantha Steiger Smith, has a book signing at the Penguin Book Shop, Nov. 18, 2017 at 11:00-12:00. Kate’s Magic Garden is a picture book, published by a new pres, Two Hoots, owned by Amy Cherrix, former editor who visited Pittsburgh in fall, 2015. Proceeds from the sale of Sam’s book go to the charity, Childhelp. This doesn’t surprise any of us who know Sam. She and a friend have organized book activities the past few summers through the Allegheny County Food Bank. Their hope has been to encourage hungry kids still to use the food bank services on off-school times. I can’t wait to get my copy of this generous young woman’s first book. Here’s to many more books, Samantha. Yay.

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Literary Agent Pitching

 

Many writers, like me, are looking forward to the agent conference sponsored by the PA West region of SCBWI this weekend. Featured agents are Ginger Clark, Molly O’Neill, and Jennifer Laughran. We’ve been sorting through our manuscripts to find the most sparkling one to pitch, then facing it and wondering what in the world it’s about. Like me, so many of the members in my Tuesday and Wednesday night writing groups, grope feverishly for words or spew out endless details, failing to give the essential premise, theme, or emotional change of our books. So conquering the book’s core is task 1.

Task 2 is remembering that we’re addressing agents this weekend, not editors. Many editors, I’m sure, still view the manuscript they hold as the first of many to come from the author. But with publishing pressures even greater now than they were 25 years ago when I began, editors often look at the single salability, rather than the future books the author will produce. Agents are taking on authors, not single manuscripts. So it’s important to think a bit about selling oneself, not just the ms. In the 8 minutes we have, we should sneak in publishing credentials. If none exist, then we should offer our qualifications for writing the book, its marketing history, the nibbles from agents or editors, or the reactions from conference speakers.

Task 3 is to organize, even outline our approach with the agent. Will we give first the pub history, the ms pitch, or the series of questions? Or will we simply read a first chapter and seek the agent’s reactions?

Task 4 is to prep for various off-manuscript questions from the agent. What books do we see as similar to ours? What authors do we emulate? Who are our favorite authors? In these three cases, think contemporarily, at least for a few examples. What else have we been writing? And again, prepare to summarize these other manuscripts without babbling.

Task 5 is to thank the conference organizers, Marcy, Kate, and Nora. These three are the lovely volunteers, giving more time than I can fathom, plus their remarkable organizing skills. We writers are so fortunate that they bear the time-consuming responsibilities and offer such opportunity to us. On second thought, don’t only thank them. Send compliments about them to National, then Kiss their feet! Have fun.

 

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Ridicule and discrimination

 

 

Prior to game 3 of the World Series, I was rooting for an Astros victory. Their city had just suffered a terrible hurricane, and they, unlike the Dodgers, hadn’t ever won this major title. And then Yuli Gurriel made a gesture in the dug-out, pulling his eyes down at the corners. This slant-eyed gesture was made toward Yu Darvish, the Dodger pitcher who is Japanese-Iranian, and Yuli had just hit a homerun ball that Yu had pitched. After Yuli’s reaction, I became a Dodger fan.

To be sure, Yuli will be suspended for 5 games next year. And I understand that the decision-makers didn’t want to punish the whole team.   But I wish he’d lost a game during the Series. It would have made a bigger statement about behavior and affirmation of high values.

I am overly-sensitive to the singling out of a person because of one attribute, even if it’s as major as one’s ethnicity, race, or ability. Our son is married to an Asian-American, delightful woman, who, to be honest, hasn’t experienced much, if any, discrimination like this. But my reaction springs mostly from spending nearly 2/3 of my life disabled. I still haven’t forgiven Donald Trump’s ridicule of the disabled journalist two years ago.

Frankly, I’ve faced very little mockery or teasing re: my disabilities. But I’ve heard stories of the bullying of many of my peers, and I’ve also withered in those few experiences where I’ve felt humiliated.

For instance, I walked along our neighborhood business district and felt something in front of my face along with a gust of air. A man coming behind me yelled, “Stop being an ass.”

Fortunately, he wasn’t speaking to me, but to the teenage boy, waving his hand in front of my face to double-check that I was blind (I suppose). The man spoke to me then and fumed about the “poorly-raised kid and the rotten parenting.”

“No harm done,” I said and continued down the sidewalk. But I wouldn’t have minded, then, if my guide dog at least had bitten the boy’s finger to defend my dignity.

My worst humiliation actually came from a married couple, then in their late 30s. The wife had come for a visit, and the husband stopped by to pick her up.

“Can I get you a beer?” I asked the husband.

“Sure.”

I talked for a few more minutes, while I retrieved the beer. All the while the husband was making out madly with the wife. I learned this, not by my own senses, but because the wife, in deference to full disclosure, told me. This couple had a very acrimonious relationship which was always the reason the woman stopped by. They divorced soon after.

Possibly the man felt overcome with lustful feelings at the moment. But I think his passion had something to do with “getting away with it” directly in front of me.

So Yuli, and yes, President Trump, grow up!

 

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Books to Heal Our Divide

 

Nearly fifty years ago a church in Pittsburgh chose to integrate one of the most segregated hours of the week—11:00 on Sunday morning. Three Presbyterian churches merged, two White and one Black. I’ve been a member for almost 48 of those years. The Black members of the church are teachers, doctors, professors, principals, post office workers, bankers, prison guards, sales people, assistant administrators, social workers, military personnel, musicians, ministers, unemployed, retired, parents, grandparents, young, gay, straight, hearing impaired or disabled in another way. Almost all of the men have experienced some hostility from the police. Most every Black member has experienced discrimination. Yet, I’ve never heard hate or anger, just some sighs at times. Frequently, we’ve found commonalities in our membership in minority groups, such as stereotyping. Most often my Black friends give honest accounts of their days, often spiced with humor, and show a willingness to do good in their small circles.

This week marks 22 years since the suffocation death of Jonny Gammage, a 31-year-old man driving his Pittsburgh Steeler’s cousin’s jaguar. Five suburban Pittsburgh police officers held him down, applying so much pressure to his back and neck that he couldn’t breathe. Although the coroner’s jury recommended a charge of homicide for all 5 White officers, the D.A. chose only involuntary manslaughter. Although there were two trials, both juries deadlocked, the latter in an 11-1 decision. The vote to convict came from the lone Black member of the jury. In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by New York White police in a similar manner. This week in Pittsburgh a jury declared a mistrial in the paralysis of Black motorist, Leon Ford, after being shot by a White police officer. He misidentified Mr. Ford, despite his license and car registration showing that he was who he said he was. Apparently, the officers were looking for another Black man named Ford who was an alleged drug dealer. The all-White jury deadlocked.

The issues around race that have surfaced over the past year trouble me more than I can say.

Several authors have written beautifully on this subject: Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, Kekla Magoon, How It Went Down, and Reynolds and Kiely, All American Boys. These are young adult writers and their novels, but I’d also recommend the adult novel by Jodie Picoult, Small Great Things. Picoult has done a tremendous amount of research for this novel, and though parts are not always nuanced, I think she could appeal to a very large audience who might be moved by her characters. The words of these authors will surpass any I can offer about the heartbreaking divide on racial lines we are experiencing.

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Seeking control in this publishing world

 

 

My Tuesday night writing group spontaneously decided to have a celebration of one member finishing her novel. One person brought champagne and all the makings of a champagne float (highly recommended), and another brought yummy lemon cupcakes. I provided apples and honey in honor of the Jewish New Year. One member laughed and said, “At least celebrating is something we can control in this publishing business.”

One other thing within our control that all the writers in that group adhere to is reading and learning always about their craft. The August Writer magazine has an excellent article on writing memoir, which I also recommend. Read it with a champagne float. But much of the advice in the article seems to refer, also, to fiction.

So many of the subjects in memoir are overdone. Publishers are saturated with them, just as with various fiction subjects. So the trick, then, (not so easy, of course) is to think of something new.

Short of that, we must write beautifully…not necessarily with flowers, but with strong, individual language. Have voice. How often have we heard that? But the article pointed to voice and language and art as some elements that make memoir stand out.

So often books, whether nonfiction or fiction, lack depth. It’s not enough for memoir to be about one’s life, even if one is a celebrity. There has to be a theme, some substance—at least for most publishers.

Writing fiction or memoir is truly exposing ourselves…autobiographies sneak in even if we aren’t intentionally using our experience. But one writer says to be sure to write from our scars, not our open wounds. Perspective is key to accomplishing universality. So, too, is brutal honesty. But what truths to tell about ourselves or use in fiction? Physical or sexual abuse, alcoholic or addictive parents blur with repetition. Honesty doesn’t have to be massive disfunction or criminal. Sometimes I find the pathetic needs and the petty motivations the most interesting disclosures, and I think they often strike the heart and brain of the reader, making him say, the “me, too,” the response we aim for, according to the article. One writer says to write what you don’t know yet about yourself and your experience.

Finally, in writing memoir, just as in writing fiction, we have to develop characters that sweep up the reader and carry her through the pages. The first 30-50 pages have to hook the reader so that he cares.

Think how often we speak to friends or family and begin telling something burning that happened to us, and they don’t hear us and change the subject. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader care.

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Adding History to Memoir

 

 

In the last month I’ve been adding some history to the memoir I’m writing—i.e., history of blind people, natural history of dogs, etc. I’ve wanted to broaden the book, not to “kick me out of the memoir,” (the title of a nonfiction workshop a friend attended) but to put my experience in a context. I just read Hillbilly Elegy by Vance, a very interesting read. But at times I wanted less memoir, less of Vance, and more of social commentary.

Adding history to a part of one’s autobiography is not without challenge. Writing history generally, I imagine, is always a huge project. But adding nonpersonal history to memoir has taught me a few things.

First, the struggle comes from making the information from at least two books on each topic concise.

Second, readability is a challenge. Memoir is full of personal specifics. The hope is that a voice comes through in those sections. But continuing that voice in the informational parts and avoiding the accusation of dryness pose challenge.

Third, how much history and what events should be included?

I’ve come up with a few “dos” for my book that might apply to others:

  • Give the highlights and point the reader to books that give the comprehensive accounts.
  • Keep the information linear, i.e., chronological.
  • Keep the history compressed in one section of the chapter.
  • Set off the chapter with the personal connection to this material, give the history, and conclude with the personal.

Hope this helps.

 

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“The Summer Before the War” and characterization

 

So many writing texts tell us to detail biographies of our characters in order to make them authentic. “In Magic Words” Cheryl Klein suggests that we ask a myriad of questions about ourselves (and I mean endless questions) at various ages and save that in a file. She recommends that we analyze our lives at picture book age, at elementary school age, and at our teenage. Although I truly believe in this advice and offer it to others, I’ve never taken the time or pain to do this. The closest I came was in a workshop with Susan Campbell Bartoletti where she asked us to remember our most important house growing up. Then she suggested we think of something important that had taken place in every room of that house. Frighteningly, I remembered nothing but very negative scenes, the stuff for a Mary Carr memoir, maybe, but so far not for my personal work. I certainly entertained good memories then, after being self-shocked. Compared to many in our country, I didn’t suffer, and I know my parents were better parents than their own. So part of my resistance is that I don’t want to whine and especially don’t want to trash family members who tried their bests.   But I think I resist, too, out of laziness. I write memoir, but confine myself to disability issues. The characters that surround me are real people, which may be easier to fledge out than fictional ones. Of course, I’ve often changed names (with a disclaimer at the beginning of the books) and if they were (in my mind) really villainous, I’ve thought of ways to give them metaphorical small penises, so they won’t get litigious.

But in reading Helen Simonson’s second novel, “The Summer Before the War,” Random House I think, 2016, I’ve been so enthralled by the characterizations of her large cast, by the nuance of many. The book has the character foibles of a Jane Austen novel, but also includes the astonishingly cruel that we’ve come to know in contemporary authors’ work. It also deals with war with a reality that brings tears at times, so it’s not escapist fare.

I’ve been reading it every chance I get and am now into the last 50 pages or so. I’m reluctant to read with the same avarice because I don’t want to come to the end. So much of this is because of the wonderful characterizations.

The book has inspired me to try the character sketching drudge work. Some of my darker experiences could be varied a bit and given to fictional heroines, and that might lead to a kind of Beatrice Nash or Hugh grange from the simonson book. At least it’s worth a try.

And if I’ve motivated anyone to read this novel, I should say that her first book, 2010, was “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” which I think was made into a movie.

 

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