It’s That Time of Year Again


Every year, as the leaves begin to change, I dust off my copy of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and read it again.

Irving had a wonderful way of describing things in luxurious detail. His description of the meals at Katrina’s house is rich enough to make you want to raid the fridge. And his description of Ichabod is priceless:

“The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

There is a tendency for writers today to avoid being too descriptive. This is especially true for picture book authors, who have to leave a great deal of room for an illustrator to work. We’re told to keep the language of our stories crisp and to the point. We’re encouraged to show, not tell.

What if Irving had followed that advice to the letter? How might Ichabod’s tale have been different if Irving had not painted such a clear picture of him for his readers? What if we knew none of the details of the table set at Katrina’s home?

Writers of Irving’s time (Sleepy Hollow was written in about 1820) took their time with a story. A story was meant to be enjoyed at leisure. People sat in front of the fire after dinner (before television and other gadgets intruded on the peaceful arrival of evening), slowly chewing on each sentence, savoring it before moving on to the next. Washington Irving, Jane Austen, and a little later, Mark Twain, knew how to draw us into the world they had created, to see the characters take shape and begin to breathe. One shudders to think what today’s editors would have done to their stories and what adventures we might have missed.

The writing advice we get from books, magazines, and blogs can be very useful; but I don’t want to pick up a book and have to create my own version of the setting or characters. That’s the writer’s job, not the reader’s. Description, when used judiciously, should slow the reader (not the story) down just a bit. Just long enough to smell the pie, hear the wind howl, or see the main character walk into the room.



Sometime during the night, the number of followers of my blog hit 101!

When I started this blog in February, I really didn’t think anyone would bother to read it.

Thanks to all of you!

19 Unintentional and Disturbing Moments from Kids’ Books


Sorry I didn’t post this week. Working overtime at the day job.  For your enjoyment, I recommend you check out this very funny article at and be careful what you put in those stories!

The Troops of General Discontent

The Arabic "N" for "Nasara" or "Nazarene"

The Arabic “N” for “Nasara” or “Nazarene”

Came across a poem I wrote on Valentine’s Day 1981, which is really ironic when you see the content. I was 18 years old and a senior in high school. I have a few things to say and please bear with me, but first the poem:

The Troops of General Discontent

by MJ O’Leary 1981

Amassed upon the northern hill,

in battle gear and dressed to kill,

make no mistake as to the intent

of the troops of General Discontent.

In spotless garb the troops assemble,

a sight to make the enemy tremble.

While waiting for the order to fire

the General’s troops will never tire.

Among the troops gathered there

are Major Offense and Private Affair.

Corporal Punishment is there to see

that discipline’s maintained properly.

All is quiet, the troops stand ready.

Each sword is held high and steady.

The canons are all loaded and waiting.

There’s no time left for negotiating.

The order comes and the canons roar,

the start of another bloody war.

Swords pointed at sister and brother,

they’ve turned their weapons on each other.

Never to kill, but only to maim,

and give somebody else the blame.

The troops will retire at dusk and then

they’ll wake in the morning to war again.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that I write stories for children because stories were my means of escape as a child.  I don’t care to discuss the abuse I lived with. I will say that the physical abuse stopped the day I realized I had grown taller than my primary abuser and slammed that person into a wall.  The emotional and psychological abuse, however, continued.  This poem reflected my perception of my always-at-war family and the crushing stress I lived under.  I used reading, and then writing, to deal with my situation.  But today my thoughts are with those who have neither books nor hope.

In the last 13 years, our world has grown more dangerous and vicious than it has ever been in mankind’s history. War seems to be everywhere at once.  The ability to kill large numbers of people, and the hellish desire to do it, is unprecedented.  It won’t take long for the tally of dead to exceed man’s earlier accomplishments.  As is always the case in war, children are suffering the worst of it.  Taken on Jihad by his father, a little Australian boy struggles, using two little hands, to hold up the decapitated head of a man. It looks so heavy.  Parents are murdered in front of their children.  Children are beheaded or crucified by ISIS thugs. Little girls are brutally raped–some too young to even understand what is being done to them. They only know it hurts and they feel ashamed.  Christians find the Arabic letter “N” painted on their homes. It stands for “Nasara” which means “Nazarene”.  Unwilling to convert, they are forced to flee their homes or die. Many have done both, never making it to safety.

For these children, there are no bedtime stories. There are no picture books to disappear into.  There is no concept of a different place or a different way of living.  In their world, evil always triumphs.  Evil that calls itself good.  Evil that calls itself godly.

I want to gather these children around me and tell them, “Once upon a time…”

Once more, into the breach!

I just submitted a manuscript to a small publisher in New York. I haven’t discussed this particular story on this blog at all, but my writing group read it and gave it a good review.

I worked on it for about a year, off and on. I had trouble getting myself to write the first draft of the ending but found myself with time on my hands when Hurricane Sandy struck last fall, putting my medical transcription job on hold for a couple of weeks while the doctors and patients put their lives back together.

I don’t know how the publisher I chose will like it. I suppose it’s possible to like the story but feel it has zero chance of seeing a bookshelf.

I don’t know how it works with other genres; but with children’s books, they only contact you if they’re interested or they send a form rejection letter. Most of the time, I’m just left wondering if they even received it. It’s a little disheartening.

If it gets a thumbs down, maybe I’ll just put it on the blog. It’s a fun read, even for adults.

Wish me luck.


Just Tell Me What You Want!

A friend very kindly suggested that my last post could turn off potential agents or publishers.  She’s probably right.  I thought about taking it down, but decided to let it stand.  There are bullies and manipulators in the publishing business and quite frankly, I have no stomach for them.  I wouldn’t be happy working with them, and they certainly wouldn’t be happy working with me.

On the other hand, an agent or publisher who wants a writer who works hard, meets deadlines, and is fiercely self-disciplined would have no problem with me at all.  I guess it’s all about perception.  If an agent or publisher describes the ideal writer in terms of a doormat, we just aren’t suited for one another.  Move along, folks; there’s nothing to see here.

Several people commented that they’d never seen submission guidelines that read like a request for an essay.  Here’s one, though it isn’t as bad as some others I’ve seen but can’t find right now (I probably threw them in the trash where they belong):

“Include credentials, intended audience/market; description of book, how does it benefit readers, and how does it differ from other books.”

Which brings me to another pet peeve about submission guidelines in which the company is very clear about what they don’t want but a little fuzzy on what they do want (mind you, this is a publisher of books for young children):

“No animal stories, concept books, folk tales, fairy tales, myths, legends, books in series format, novelties, fantasy, science fiction, or horror.”

We are talking about kids here, right?

Ok, I get the part about horror.

This publisher says it will accept “select fiction”.  WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!

I wish everyone would just lighten up.  We’re talking about stories.  Made up people, places, and situations.  Make believe.  We’re not designing launch switches for missile silos. I’m sorry if you don’t like the font.  I’m sorry if I sent the manuscript to you in the waning phase of the moon on a Tuesday in a month ending in “r”.  I’m sorry you don’t like where I placed the page numbers.  I’m sorry your guidelines were anything but.

Just read the story.


Really Stupid Submission Guidelines

I’m getting ready to begin the submission process again to the few publishers/agents who are actually accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

I like to keep things simple and direct, and some of the submission guidelines I’ve come across strike me as nothing more than making a writer jump through hoops. The publishers/agents would have me believe that sticking to a persnickety set of rules that have nothing to do with the manuscript is somehow a display of how professional a writer I am.

What a load of crap.

It’s really about seeing how much control they can exercise over a writer and just how much crap we’ll put up with just to be published.

Somebody had to say it.

My personal favorite is the demand that I include an essay with my submission explaining why my story is better than any other and should be chosen by said publisher/agent.

Would you also like a 500-word essay on how I spent my summer vacation?

Any publisher/agent with that low an opinion of writers is not worth my time or yours.

Each manuscript I submit is neatly typed and error free.  It’s double-spaced for ease of reading.  My contact information is included.  My query letter is to the point and includes the title, a synopsis of the story, and a brief biography.

Somebody needs to remind the powers that be that it’s about the story.  Jumping through hoops is for trained poodles, not serious writers.