Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Swell of Memories -- And Aren't Memories are Swell?

I've been in a nostalgic mood lately.

Now that my granddaughter is spending a month studying with her college overseas, or "studying abroad" as she puts it, memories of living overseas with my husband and children for three years during the 1980s and working in Germany come flooding back.

My granddaughter has been studying in Europe for about ten days now, and over the weekend she went on an excursion to the German city of Berlin. She has called and texted and posted on Facebook about her excursion, which was filled with trips to landmarks, museums, and a concentration camp.

One site her group visited was The Berlin Wall, which was still intact when we lived in Germany during the 1980s, but is now a tourist destination. Although, she noted, she also visited another famous tourist-destination wall, the graffiti-decorated John Lennon Wall.

Back in the 1980s, my daughter (my granddaughter's mom) also traveled to what was then called West Berlin. At that time, my daughter was a high school freshman and an amazing athlete -- she ran track and played softball -- and her American high school was invited to play in a softball tournament against another American high school in West Berlin. And she made the trip with her team.

During the 80s, Americans working in Germany needed special permission for themselves or family members to travel from West Germany, where we worked, to East Germany, which had to be traveled through to get to West Berlin. My husband had to get a "flag" letter signed by a General Officer from his work authorizing our daughter to go with her school team.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to accompany her to Berlin, so I don't have photos, but when she returned, she had a wealth of memories. She told stories, not so much about the softball tournament, but of standing next to the Berlin Wall and of riding on a train that left during the middle of the night with the shade-drawn windows so the teenage girls and their coaches couldn't "spy" on the East German countryside.

Now, more than 30 years later, her daughter has made a similar trip, with her school, but on a bus with an open view of the German countryside, to a much different, undivided Germany and undivided Berlin.

This summer my granddaughter is making special memories that will last her a lifetime of her visit to Berlin, over the same, yet different, streets and sites her mom walked across and visited decades ago. And isn't that a wonderful adventure?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Last Call: Unbound Book Festival Conversation between Alex George and Eleanor Brown

This is the final installment of my notes and observations from the absolutely fabulous inaugural Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri, last month.

During the last event of the day, Alex George, Unbound Book Festival’s seemingly tireless festival founder and director and author of A Good American, sat down for a conversation with the very personable author of The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown. I found their conversation the most personal, relaxed, and enjoyable activity of the festival.

Alex and Eleanor, self-described “twins,” candidly talked about their writing processes and her soon-to-be-released novel, The Light of Paris, which Eleanor described as a story of “art, passion, and escaping other people’s expectations.”

I felt like I was sitting at a kitchen table with two fascinating and friendly authors chatting about writing; here are a few highlights:

The power of story makes us feel we are not alone; it’s reaching out to people.

The Light of Paris came about after Eleanor discovered letters her grandmother wrote home while she was living in Paris in 1924.

The Light of Paris is set in the Jazz Age in Paris during the 1920s. (Alex is also writing a book set in Paris in the 1920s.)

Eleanor’s latest book is her “never book,” something she said she’d never write -- a parallel narrative with two story lines, including letters and journals.

Parallel narratives have to connect.

Writers must know whose story it is.

First person is tricky because the narrator is unreliable.

Writers cannot control what other people think about their book.

After you’ve written it, the book belongs to the reader.

Research is important to draw forth images of place.

Can’t always be factually true, but must be emotionally true.

Either you plan out on the front end or you’ll have to on the back end.

Eleanor wrote The Weird Sisters “by the seat of my pants” and described her first draft as a “hot mess.”

The Light of Paris was planned out; her first draft took two months.

It’s scary to do something unfamiliar, but think about the “happiness of possibility.”

After a long, but thoroughly enjoyable, day Diana Graveman and I met up with my Mizzou-student granddaughter. She drove us to Trops, where we stood in a long line behind other thirsty patrons. We each bought a different kind of frozen tropical-flavored drink, which I’d describe as alcoholic snow cones. Yum! It was a delightful way to cap off a wonderful day.

I hope the Unbound Book Festival will become an annual affair. It was an inspiring and educational event for writers and readers alike.
And I hope my blog visitors have enjoyed these posts about the festival.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lessons Learned from My First Page Rodeo

First Page Rodeo Panelists
Margaret, Greg, Eleanor, and George
Unbound Book Festival’s First Page Rodeo was one of the most anticipated events of the festival, and not only by me.  Early in the day I overheard several festival-goers remark on how they were looking forward to the event.

The distinguished First Page Rodeo panelists were: Margaret Sutherland Brown, literary agent; Greg Michalson, Publisher of Unbridled Books; Eleanor Brown, NYT best-selling author of The Weird Sisters; and George Hodgman, NYT best-selling author of the memoir Bettyville.

The panel members discussed five “winning” first-pages selected from dozens submitted in advance of the festival. The panel assessed aesthetics, praised, criticized, and commented candidly on the merits of each of the five entries.
Confession time: One of the five submissions was mine, but thank goodness the authors’ identities weren’t revealed until the end of the discussion.
Mary, Dianna, and Donna (me)

I was grateful to have some friends with me for moral support. Mary Horner and Dianna Graveman (pictured on the left) sat next to me, while Sarah Kohnle, one of the festival volunteers, cheered me on from inside the auditorium.

By the time the panelists got to my submission, my heart was beating rapidly; I gripped a pen in my sweaty palm as I prepared to document their words of wisdom in my notebook. 
When the first word out of an expert panelist’s mouth is “Never!” you know you're in for a rough ride. (The Never! rebuke referred to never submitting a manuscript in single space. Although the FPR submission guidelines called for single-spaced submissions, mine was "singled" out because, in an effort to get as much as I could on my first page, I didn't leave a lot of white space.)
Listening to some other issues pointed out with my first page, I became discouraged because I should've known better. My spirits lifted a bit and I hung on to positive feedback about my use of time-centered references, nice description, and turns of phrase.

My First Page Rodeo was a humbling, yet enlightening, experience which I hope to learn from and use to improve my novel.

Here are some FPR lessons learned in the form of Dos and Don’ts. Note: These applied to at least one of the five submissions, but not all applied to mine.


Bring strength and energy to your work, which is something that can’t be taught

Let the language catch up with emotion

Let the emotional content work its way to the surface

Engage the reader/draw your reader in immediately

Make good use of summary and back story

Answer the question: Why now?

Speed it up!

Know which genre you’re writing in

Develop an engaging voice

Balance your natural strengths

Remember there’s a lot at stake on the first page

Know who your characters are

Let the reader know whose story it is

Be aware of pacing and flow

Create tension

Remember you can only control what is on the page

Write about what you believe in!

Create scenes

Create time-centered references

Begin with the most intriguing aspect right away

Be aware of how your words look on the page

Vary sentence and paragraph lengths

Include nice details and turns of phrase

Take a fresh approach

Create a unique voice

Have an appealing sensibility

Watch syntax and verb tenses

Make dialogue ring true

Avoid using second person

Bring something new

Make the reader want to “get into the boat” with your story

Use a first draft to tell the story to yourself

Start with the thrust of action

Stay in the “now” of the story

Be persistent and courageous


Overcook the prose

Push too hard

Create confusion, especially at the beginning

Force the reader to reread to understand

Use too much pedestrian detail, such as "I walked."

Submit in single space

Begin with a year

Start with flashback or a lot of back story

Use too many long paragraphs

Summarize -- scene is better

Have long passages of dialogue

Have too much internalization

Start too early

Every give up!

I sincerely appreciated the panelists' forthright and generous comments and suggestions, not only of my own first page, but also of the other submissions.

In all honesty, after listening to the panelists' critiques of my work I thought about giving up on my novel and sticking to writing non-fiction. But during the drive back to St. Peters I decided my story is one that needs to be told and I want to tell it.

When I got home I revised my first paragraph and reduced my first page by more than 100 words. To pick up the pace, I varied the paragraph and sentence lengths, which I hope will interject more energy into my story. Taking one panelist's advice, I decided to complete my first draft so I know the story myself before I let anyone else read it.

My larger plan is to restructure my novel to start in the now and weave the back story in later. 
It will be a lot of work, but I’m determined to stay in the saddle and ride this story till the end.

 How about you? Are there any items on these lists that caught your attention?

Friday, May 6, 2016

Notes from the Unbound Book Festival: Mark Doty Discusses Poetry and Memoir

Standing in the center of the chapel on the campus of Stephens College, Mark Doty read a selection of his award-winning poems. After his readings he shared his thoughts on poetry and memoir.
On poetry:

The best poems are purely personal, but they should not leave the reader saying, “So what?”

Reach toward bridges between the writer and reader.

"Create an opportunity for shared experiences in places that are unexpected and unlikely, where beauty and dignity reveal themselves."

Performance can lift one out of oneself.

Cultivate individual sensibilities.

On racial violence, he said that it’s not just the province of poets of color to write about it. “It’s everybody’s job to address it.”

Be part of change.
On memoir:

Writing his memoir was like watching a film of his childhood unfold.
Tap into memory in detail.

Memory and imagination become close together.

How the book felt was most important.

Art is a refuge.
After his first year of grief over the death of his partner, prose opened up more expansive ways to express himself.

“Joy resides in the present, in the now.”
Next week I'll share my notes on what the panel of professionals had to say about the five submissions selected for discussion during the Unbound Book Festival's First Page Rodeo .

Monday, May 2, 2016

Notes from Unbound Book Festival: Senator Claire McCaskill on Politics, the State of Journalism and Writing PLENTY LADYLIKE

Senator Claire McCaskill
There was a long line to get into the auditorium to listen to Senator Claire McCaskill and Terry Ganey talk about writing the book Plenty Ladylike. A benefit of being among the first in line was getting a front-row seat in the crowded auditorium.

The one-hour discussion was moderated by Vicky Russell from the "Columbia Daity Tribune." Index cards were handed out in advance for people to write down questions, which were asked at the end of the presentation.

The first question Ms. Russell asked Senator McCaskill was how she is doing after her breast cancer diagnosis. The senator said she is "doing great." She expressed thanks for all the prayers, kind thoughts, and words of encouragement she received during her recovery, even from some of her “haters.” 

Senator McCaskill and Mr. Ganey talked about how the book came to be -- the initial idea and the writing process. He said he believed her story needed to be told in part because she is "a remarkable star and a Senator, who once was on a game show in Hollywood." He began collecting material in 2011, which included interviews and oral history.

Then, according to Senator McCaskill, "Aiken happened.”  The focus of the book shifted to the 2012 election between the senator and Todd Aiken. The agents representing the book later told her they wanted a broader story.

Senator McCaskill's goal for the book was to be "honest, candid, and real, but not hurtful."

Mr. Ganey's role was to be a collaborator, more of a helper, in writing the book. The senator found the biggest challenge working with a co-writer was remaining true to her voice. Because of their difference in writing styles, she said, "it got a little bumpy at times."

He was the disciplinarian who kept her on deadline. Mr. Ganey joked that "at times it was like capturing Peter Pan’s shadow.”

The senator admitted she is not one to keep a journal, although she remarked, “journals look good in stores, but I never write in them.” So she provided him just what she remembered.

The risk of writing a book like hers, she believed, was that the book itself could become a news story. She said could’ve written some stories that would have sold more books, but that would’ve hurt people and she didn't want to do that.

She wanted to write something to let young girls know "it's okay to be bossy and have a big mouth," because she believes "women don’t have to be uncomfortable owning their ambition or not being likeable."

Regarding the editing process, she said the original manuscript was twice as long as the final book. "They really cut the hell out of it," she said. 

When asked if she'd do it again, she compared writing a book to having a baby. "The first five to six months are not so terrible, but the last hour is painful. Then you forget the pain with the joy of creation."

When asked what she might want to write about, she said she is concerned about politics today in terms of the breakdown of the journalistic model. She believes that journalism is searching for a business model. The senator would like to see a focus on expansive pieces with more investigative reporting; with reporters developing sources and writing in-depth articles -- for example, how Medicare for all would be funded.

Regarding politics, she compared the state of today's politics to a "demolition derby with so many bad actors," and the media "focusing on what makes people mad or afraid."

When asked about her political ambitions, she said she is "irritated at Jefferson City and the elected officials in the state." To sum it up, she said, “We need to stand our ground in Missouri.”

This was the first time I'd ever heard Senator McCaskill speak in public, and I'm so happy I sat in on her session. I found her refreshingly candid and, typical of most Missourians, down-to-earth. Senator McCaskill was also intelligent and classy -- and very ladylike.

Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V - Interviews with Lonnie Whitaker and Dr. Barri Bumgarner

Here is the second installment of interviews with contributors who have stories in Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V , from Ozark Writers, I...