For Mrs. Burgio

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was in the third grade. I had this great teacher, Mrs. Burgio, who was one of the few lay teachers at the time at Our Lady of Angels in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She was the audacious type who eschewed the linear pattern of desk placement in favor of creating small groups. Each group had a name. Mine was the Blue Jays. She set up “learning stations” around the room. We had one for science, one for math, one for reading, and another for art. Each day, we were given time to visit the station of our choice and learn on our own. In a school ruled by nuns, this teaching style was downright seditious. At some point during that year, I wrote my first poem. It was awful, and I was hooked.

The year Mrs. Burgio directed the eighth grade’s all-girl production of Fiddler on the Roof, my class had the chance to sit in on a few rehearsals. I had never seen a live performance before and I was entranced.

Mrs. Burgio was also a woman of great foresight. Brooklyn in the late sixties and early seventies was a place full of very young drug addicts. I well remember seeing a neighbor’s daughter being carried, unconscious, up the apartment steps by a group of friends. Drugs were everywhere; and at the age of about nine, my classmates and I were approaching the day when we would have to make our own decisions about whether or not to use. You have to understand that at the time, drugs weren’t considered especially dangerous unless you overdosed. Drugs were mind expanding. Drugs were fun. Drugs were cool. If you didn’t at least smoke weed, something was seriously wrong with you. Mrs. Burgio took the unheard of step of talking to a bunch of very young kids about drug abuse. She taught us about addiction. I remember her saying, “If I had to draw a picture of someone who uses drugs, I would draw a picture of them with a big fish hook in their mouth.” That image stuck with me and despite enormous peer pressure in later years, I never touched the stuff.

We all meet people who impact our lives, maybe even change our direction. Mrs. Burgio was the first who did that for me, and I loved her for it. I found out that I’m good with words. At home, my daily lesson was that I wasn’t worth the time of day and that all I did was make everyone else miserable. But in Mrs. Burgio’s third grade class, I found the thing that would define and sustain me.

Thank you, Mrs. Burgio, wherever you are.

My Day Job Sucks & Doctors are ***holes

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A brief recap:  Like just about every writer on the planet, I work a day job to keep a roof over my head.  In my case, I do medical transcription.

What that means is that I listen to reports dictated by very highly paid neurologists and otolaryngologists and I type what they say.  Well, sort of.  I type what they’re supposed to say.  Clearly, the basics of English grammar are never acquired by these highly-educated buffoons and it takes a woman with a twelfth grade education to make them sound smart.

In addition to being an excellent typist, I have to know the rules of grammar, be an excellent speller (including medical terms like “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty”), and have to know which drugs are used to treat which conditions, as well as the appropriate dosages.  I have to be very aware of details, like making sure the doctor is consistent about things like left and right.  I also have to find current addresses for the referring physicians, most often without being given a first name or the proper spelling of the last name.  This eats up my time and I don’t get paid for it.

For all of this, I currently make (if I’m lucky) 5 cents per line.  That translates to about $6.25 an hour in a good month.  And boy, do those doctors bitch about the cost.  Many have gone as far as to outsource their work to India. Yeah. Chew on that for a while and remember it the next time your computer freezes and you get stuck talking to “Bob” in customer service.

The only benefit to this job, as far as my writing career goes, is that I can say with complete honesty that I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life editing medical reports.  That fact, and this blog, are about as far as I get with the elusive writing platform.

So next time you see your doctor, just remember that behind that façade of concern is a person who will later bitch about how much it costs them to have someone like me make sure the right information gets into your chart.  If your doctor hasn’t poisoned you yet, you may have a medical transcriptionist to thank.

You’re welcome.  Your miserly physician is not.

 

 

It Doesn’t Have to be Real

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I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.

Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

We’re All Still Writing

I just read a wonderful book about writing, “Still Writing–The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” (Grove Press) by Dani Shapiro @danijshapiro, so let me start by saying I give it very high marks and strongly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about the fastest way to get an agent or the latest marketing gimmicks.  It’s about writing and being a writer.

What a relief.

I’ve read several books about writing over the years. They serve as a sort of creative boost for me when I can’t seem to get the words out. I feel, in some way, that these books give me permission to want to write.  I wish I could explain that.  I guess I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into the lobby of a private club and I don’t have an ID card to show to the guy at the desk.  I keep expecting the bouncer to show up and tell me I have no business being there.

When I read an interview with a writer, the thing I most want to hear about isn’t how they got their agent or how they got published–I want to hear about their process.  What is their day like?  Do they write at home or in a café?  In pajamas in bed, or dressed and in an office?  Are they outliners or do they write as they go along?  It’s not that I can’t figure out my own writing process (I know very well how my brain works), but I continue to be fascinated by how other writers get the job done.

Other writers.  Did I just include myself in that category?

Confession:  For those who don’t know me, I am a newly self-published children’s author (Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle).  Check it out.

I remember years ago when the idea of self-publishing was considered something to be embarrassed about, as if people were sitting in their basements writing porn.  “Vanity publishing” they called it back then, because obviously anyone who thought they knew better than the publishing world had to possess a monstrous ego.  Picture a would-be author spending a small fortune to have their book printed, only to be left with boxes of unsold books stuffed in an attic someplace.  There was no Amazon back then, no Kindle.   It was risky, and I don’t know if anyone was actually successful at it.

The simple truth is that if you can’t get agents or publishers to consider your work (or you just want to bypass them altogether and maintain creative control) and you decide to self-publish, you had better be sure the publishing gatekeepers are wrong.  Very wrong.

The ease of self-publishing has, I understand, cluttered the literary landscape with a lot of badly written or badly edited books.  I guess for some people the desire to be published races past their desire to write and edit well and the result is…unfortunate.  I think I’ve avoided that particular pitfall.  I hope you will, too.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

And so, the deed is done…

I did it. My first book, Winthrop Risk, Detective, is officially listed on Amazon and will also be available on Kindle in a few days.

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Now I have to get the word out. When I was submitting the story to traditional publishers, I had trouble categorizing the book, and that may have hurt my chances with them. It isn’t a picture book but it isn’t a novel, either. It’s a four chapter book that falls somewhere in between. A child of about 9 years of age should be able to handle it alone.  It runs about 36 pages and is a fun read, if I do say so myself.  Because the hero in the story uses a child’s version of 1930s detective vernacular, I included a little glossary of terms in the back of the book.  I hope you’ll check it out.  I plan for it to be a series (The Winthrop Risk Mysteries) and book two is in the very rough first draft stage.  Many thanks to the Lake Saint Clair Writers group for critiquing the manuscript for the first book and giving me the thumbs up.

Black Cats and Good Luck

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Wow. Two months since my last entry. Sorry, but things got worse instead of better. Long story.

Anyway, that little guy up there is Ben Wade. He’s about six weeks old. I rescued him from the crawl space under my neighbor’s house. His mother apparently abandoned him. He’s so small he didn’t have the body weight to trigger the live trap the nice people at animal control brought over. He went to and from the trap to eat for days without setting it off. After six days of this, I decided to use trickery and deceit to win the day.  I baited the trap as usual but put an old towel over the trap so the kitten couldn’t see out while he was eating.  I waited for him to enter the trap, then snuck around and closed the door.

Boy, was he pissed.

Why Ben Wade? That’s the name of Russell Crowe’s outlaw character in “3:10 to Yuma”. Ben Wade was very hard to catch and even harder to keep in custody. He wore a black hat, of course.  The name seemed to fit my new friend.

Since my beloved Gandalf had passed away in March, I decided to keep Ben. We’re both pretty happy with the situation. Vet says Ben is healthy, aside from some parasites and a massive flea infestation, both of which are being treated. He has all the spunk and mischievousness I appreciate in cats, and he purrs every time I come near him.

He likes to sleep on that cushion on the floor next to my desk, so it looks like I’ll have a writing companion.  This is fitting, since it was after watching “3:10 to Yuma” that I got the idea for my story “The Cow Tipping Kangaroo of Kangaroo Valley” (under Stories for Children).

So say hello to my new muse.

Wreck in Progress

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Yes, I’m coining a new phrase.  WIP now stands for “wreck in progress”.

I pulled out the file for a story I put aside last summer.  Its appalling state of confusion prompted me to label it a WIP.

Still, my distance from the project gave me some perspective on what can stay and what needs to be put down as mercifully as possible.

This will involve rum. Lots of it.

She Did Her Best

I like old cemeteries.  I like to stroll through and read the headstones.  Old headstones tell us something about the person resting below.  At the very least, we get a full name and dates of birth and death. We know if the person was married and if they had children. I found one very old headstone that said the deceased had been murdered and even named his murderer.

Today’s headstones are not as generous.  Too often, they’re just big granite slabs with a last name carved onto them.  They tell us nothing about the life of the person.  All we know about them is that they died.  In that sense, modern cemeteries are peopled by corpses, while old cemeteries are peopled by people.

Infant mortality rates were high a hundred and more years ago, so an old cemetery will have an unsettling number of tiny headstones marking the graves of little ones who never made it past the age of two.  I wonder at the small size of the headstones, as if they feared that a standard headstone would overwhelm the tiny grave.  These small headstones are usually the first to disappear, taken over by sod and weeds.

One of the saddest headstones I’ve found marked the grave of a woman who was married and had many children.  Beneath the basic information were the words, “She did her best.”

I’ve often wondered about that woman. With her husband and so many children to raise, what happened in her life that made her family put those words on her headstone?  To say that someone did their best implies that, despite their best efforts, they failed.  This grave was more than 100 years old, so it isn’t likely she failed at business, or law, or at being a doctor.  She was likely a housewife in that age when women didn’t have career options.  She did her best, they said.

I wish I could speak to her.  I wish I knew what the words on the headstone meant.

As I get older, I’m more conscious of the fact that I probably have more years behind me than I do ahead of me.  I wonder if my struggle to write and sell my stories will ever bear fruit.  I wonder how much the selling part matters.  I don’t want the words, “She did her best,” written on my headstone.

I want it to say, “She wrote.”

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