We are what we read

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OK, I don’t buy that entirely, but I do believe in “garbage in, garbage out,” in most things.

That’s why I try not to read crap. I mean, no one tries to read crap, but the older I get the less guilt I feel for starting a book and not finishing it.

What I’m saying is…books have a great power over me. For this reason, I expect a lot from them, as I would from any encounter that will suck up, what 6, 10, even 12 hours–for a doorstopper.

I ask a lot from a read, which generally has to tick 2 or more of these boxes: subject matter I want to know more about; believable characters; language that I envy.

Truth is, I have become an old man (as far as reading habits). I am that crotchety guy at the bookstore who wants to get his history, his humanity, and his poetry all in one tome.

Is this asking too much of one of my fave genres, historical fiction? Of course, as soon as you say, “genre,” literary types are thinking, well you might get your history and your humanity, but the language won’t sing. On the other hand, historical fiction buffs don’t want their story bogged down by MFA-grad-style poetic language acrobatics. Walking a tightrope indeed!

Am I oversimplifying. Of course. Are there novels that tick all the boxes? Yes. Since we’re talking historical fiction (in which I’m up to my eyeballs, as I’m working on a historical novel manuscript), I’ll throw All the Light We Cannot See out there as pretty stellar. In the WWII vein, I’d also add the less recent Snow Falling on Cedars. What do you think?

This weekend I hope to finish Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, which ticks two of my boxes, and that’s OK.

Let’s chat books. What are you reading? How many of your boxes does it tick? Is it informing what you’re writing?

 

 

 

 

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Agent query letter purgatory

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…because “hell” seemed a little strong.

What’s up?

Months ago, I announced that it was time for me to dive into the process of seeking literary representation (an agent) for my WIP, a historical novel manuscript.

I was ready. However, my manuscript wasn’t…quite. (And you only get one chance to make a good impression–or any impression at all–on an agent.) So, revise revise revise, and I have come out the other side knowing that now is–really–the time.

I talked here before about the steps required to prepare for this journey. Step 1 is knowing what to “pack” for the publishing road ahead, with agent query letter as “passport.” Step 2 involves putting myself in an agent’s shoes. What might he/she want of me besides a manuscript? Step 3 will involve compiling a list of agent who might be a good fit (stay tuned…).

Today: I’m in query letter purgatory. It’s not hell, really. We writers write and we write about writing, and so to get to write about our own writing is kinda neat–if tasking, and requiring a good bit of objectivity. Some say the query letter is tougher to write than the novel (a bit of an exaggeration, but still valid): As in, boil down an 85,000-word story into a 150 word synopsis. Oh sure, no problem. It certainly can’t hurt to start with a fantastic first line (or “hook”).

And here’s another couple pieces that I’m using to spit-shine my agent query letter:

Successful Query Letter with Lots of Tips by Erin Beaty on Kathy Temean’s wonderful blog Writing and Illustrating

How to Polish Your Query Letter for a Professional Shine on the Writer’s Relief site

All you writers out there, ever written an agent query letter? How’d it go?

When I’m not working on my query letter, I’m reading novels I could use as comparisons to mine. Right now it’s Lilac Girls about the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, which isn’t a close enough fit, but I’m enjoying it.

What are you writing and reading this week? Like this publishing talk? There’s a category for that at the top of my site.

 

 

“Where are we sending them? Where are they going?” A photo re-blog from A Prayer Like Gravity

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Image from A Prayer Like Gravity

These photos from A Prayer Like Gravity stirred me nearly to tears:

Where are we sending them? Where are they going?

I suppose there’s always been a certain amount of fear around kids at school. There’s the letting go, the separation from family and home. For me, this means a willful disentanglement of my heart from my kids’, as I drop them off at school every day. There’s no drama, no tears–it’s a wonderful school–but I do have to tamp down my mother love, or else I’d never let them go.

Author Elizabeth Stone said:

Making the decision to have a child…is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.

She was right. So my little hearts leave my sight to beat and grow, and I have to remind myself it’s been eight years since we were skin to skin in the hospital at their birth. They are in their own skins now; they don’t need my mother heat like that.

They are strong. I tell myself this when they come home telling me–so nonchalantly–about lock down drills.

I don’t remember lock down drills in elementary school. I remember tornado drills, my knees pressed against the painted cement block walls of the hallway outside our classroom, my body curled like a potato bug, one in a long line of kids, our hands over the napes of our necks. I remember the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster in fifth grade; when I returned home from school my mom was crying while folding laundry in the basement.

I wonder if my kids will associate school with fear or if, instead, they’ll think of my hand taking theirs and squeezing it before they tumble out of the car each morning, looking like mini sherpas with their packs and bags. I hope that’s all the burden they’ll ever have to carry.

Thanks to A Prayer Like Gravity for these photos:

via Where are we sending them? Where are they going?

Our Characters, Ourselves*

 

OK, that title is a bit of a misnomer–this post isn’t wholly about bodies–but I liked it.

This post is about the characters we create: both on paper and on, well, us.

What happened is this: I was told I needed a headshot for story I wrote that will be published later this spring. My rarely-needed “headshots” are usually crop-jobs needed to extricate my face from the face of a small child or two. My last good headshot (above, left) was taken when I was 18 and an aspiring dancer–a whole lifetime and profession ago.

I figured it was time. So I made an appointment for a blow-out at my local salon, where they said they would also make sure my makeup was camera-ready. Then I had my husband shoot a couple pics of my face, sans offspring, so that this journal can have my modern-day visage (above, right) for viewing alongside my story.

Also, I will be recording myself reading my story, so that the journal can have my voice along with my story along with my face. This is all OK and even flattering; this is what we call exposure (ahem).

Do you ever think about your own character? As bloggers we all have a handle, a personality. Mine’s Rust Belt Girl.

I realize I spend so much time thinking about the characters I create on paper that I forget my own character, my dominant persona. I was a ballet dancer in my youth; then a student; then a young married woman; then an aspiring writer; then a mom.

The “mom” character is basically all-consuming. The funny “mom” memes you see online–that’s for real. In writing, what “mom” means is that I’m supposed to write children’s literature now that I’ve birthed children who read literature. Instead, lately, I like to write about taboo subjects; a little incest anyone? (Please don’t message me with weird responses to this aside I meant to be funny/not funny.)

Onward…this story of mine that will be published later this spring (or wet-winter), I actually let my children read. This is a first.

One of my boys said he thought it was going to be funnier; one said he didn’t. Both read it until “The End”–4,000 words–so in my eyes it passed 8-year-old-boy muster. But I did have to “clean it up” first, which my more astute of my astute sons said meant, “Take out the bad words.” And the drug references and the…

I create characters to live a different life, though I love mine. I’ve talked here before about my penchant for writerly distance. Still, the characters we create are extensions of ourselves.

The other night, I attended a lecture/Q&A on developing believable characters in our writing, hosted by the Maryland Writers Association’s Annapolis chapter and featuring author and editor Barbara Esstman. My character-building takeaways:

Characters inhabit a world–closed or confined systems can work well: think Lord of the Flies or The Handmaid’s Tale–with walls of some kind that will lean on and pressure a character. These boundaries that test a character can help the writer show what the character is made of.

At least one of the main characters must have a problem to solve; when the character arrives at a solution, the story ends.

Characters have a history before the start of the story. The writer should know it, but must decide what the reader needs to know and what the reader doesn’t.

You know, sorta like this whole blogging thing. The reader needs to know us writers and highlights of our history–the stuff that matters–to understand our character, to feel invested in us and want to follow our story.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Thank you for following my story.

Do you consider your blogging persona? (Is it just me?) Is it one in the same with you? Somehow different?

Have any tips for creating believable characters in essay, memoir, or fiction?

* A little nod to Our Bodies, Ourselves (a book about women’s health and sexuality first published in the late 1960s). A relevant character-building takeaway: characters, like real people, have needs and wants. Characters, like us, go grocery shopping and sneak ice cream at 10:30pm. (Oh, is that just me?)

Fret Not: 5 Tips for a Top Author Interview

 

Let’s cut to the chase.

Interviewing skills–basic but thoughtful asking and listening–are crucial for the curious writer, reader, or moderately engaged human being. Think: job interviews, first dates, meetings with new acquaintances…

Of course, author interviews are, by far, my favorite kind of interview to conduct.

For a fan, an author interview is a great place to be–second only to actually taking up shop in the author’s head.

I’ve learned to interview by doing, having conducted 30 or more interviews in the past year alone–most for my day job, a few for this blog (including–shameless plug —my interview of Furnishing Eternity author David Giffels, which was featured on WordPress Discover.)

I fielded enough questions about that interview that I thought I’d address the topic here:

Curiosity is the first step to a good interview. Confidence is the second. Preparation is the third. Remember that trio, and you’ll be OK. Want to nail an interview? Follow these tips:

5. Ask. You may or may not be granted an interview with your favorite author. Sometimes you might have to go through the author’s agent or other representative; in this era of social media, you can find someone. Sometimes (unless you’re the New York Times) you will be turned down. But you won’t know unless you ask.

4. Own it. Come to the interview, whether over the phone or in person (never through email, please!), knowing that you are in charge. It is the interviewer’s responsibility to guide the discussion. Don’t assume that a meaningful conversation will happen organically. Prepare, and both you and your subject will be put at ease.

3. Prepare (prepare, prepare). Come with open-ended questions, more questions than you think you’ll need, but only ask about 10. Tell the author in advance how much time you will need–30 minutes to an hour, tops. Research the author’s site, and don’t ask anything you should already know from an online search. That wastes time. If you’re interviewing the author about his/her latest book, be sure you’ve digested it thoroughly. Bonus points if you can read the rest of the author’s body of work to prepare fully for the interview.

2. Be different. An author interview should uncover new answers–which requires new questions. I don’t read competing book reviews before I’ve written mine, and I don’t read all the interviews out there with an author until after I’ve worked up my own questions. Think of your unique audience. What do they want to get from reading your interview. Don’t know? Ask them to submit their questions; you can choose the best one or two to add to your list.

(drum roll, please)

1. Listen up. So, you’ve prepared thoughtful, unique questions for your author interview. Make sure you get the answers. Take the fear of not hearing or misunderstanding–and potentially misquoting–an author by recording the interview. Always ask for permission first. Then record using your phone or a trusty recorder (my inexpensive Sony ICD-PX333 has never let me down). This frees you to take part in the conversation. Truly listen, and be ready to ask follow-up questions.

Do I fret (Daily Prompt)? Do my palms still go clammy with nerves when I conduct an interview? Yep, every time. But it’s worth it to find out what makes an author tick, don’t you think?

Need some good questions to ask your author? Bookfox has 50 here.

Do you conduct interviews for work or for your blog? What are your top tips?

Let me know. Thanks! ~Rebecca

 

Rust Belt Girl roundup

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Writing advice with a “twist,” love on fire in Cleveland, and zombie raccoons, oh my!

It was a busy week here at Rust Belt Girl. In case you missed it:

I joined NPR and other credible news outlets in reporting the “zombie” raccoons of Youngstown, Ohio.

I reviewed Mark Winegardner’s 2001 masterpiece, Crooked River Burning, which follows two star-crossed lovers on a journey through Cleveland in the 50s and 60s.

Of course, what week would be complete without a little writerly advice, this time with a “twist,” for National Licorice Day?

And…I’m happy to report that I’m still welcoming new followers who found me by way of my Interview with “Furnishing Eternity” author David Giffels, which was featured on WordPress Discover March 31. See it, and so many other blogs worth your time, here. Always fun to discover something new.

Happy weekend discovering to you!

What’s on your literary plate?

~ Rebecca

*Free image courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

 

 

a bit of writerly advice… for National Licorice Day

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.E.L. Doctorow, novelist, essayist and professor best known for his works of historical fiction (who also maybe adored licorice).

Yep, doing something new here: A little writing advice chased by a little trivia (with a dash of speculation).

The headlights writing advice was provided to me (in response to my novel manuscript) by a former writing instructor and current friend, David L. Robbins, who has written about a million historical novels at this point. (Don’t know if he’s a licorice fan, but I’ll inquire.)

Why that advice?

Because, I admit it, I am a lover of the flashback. Sometimes called an analepsis (but not by me), a flashback is an interjected scene that takes the reader to a time before the current action. You know, backstory.

I’m a lover of the flashback within a flashback. (Though I know this is terribly wrong and something for which I should flog my writerly self.) Here we’re interrupting the forward moving action to talk about something in the past and then interrupting that something to talk about another past something. Whew!

And, heck, while we’re here, what’s wrong with a little flash-forward now and then?

What did Doctorow know?

A lot.

Sometimes the problem is we didn’t start the story in the right spot. If we’re constantly looking back, maybe that’s where the story should start. (Looking forward? Maybe we started too early in time.) Just don’t fall into the trap of turning backstory into dialogue for characters to deliver. Too much “remember the time…?” reads false.

So, in my novel-in-progress I killed my prologue because it took place years before the current action (and it was a prologue); and I’m doing my darnedest to drive by my headlights.

Do I promise to use no flashbacks, no flash-forwards?

No. Moderation in all things, as the Greeks said…those Greeks who called licorice “sweet root.” Did you think I’d forgotten what day it is?

Officially a weed, licorice has been prized for its health benefits for thousands of years, and is even said to have properties that may slow the effects of aging on the brain.

So, maybe have a piece of licorice to stimulate your writerly brain, turn on those headlights and get back to work.

I am…

 

 

 

 

Love in Cleveland: a story-review of CROOKED RIVER BURNING

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There’s something special about a love story set in the time and place one’s parents fell in love.

Paris? London? Niagara Falls? Nope. I’m talking about Cleveland, Ohio.

The real love story (that eventually begat me and my siblings) started with a blind date. Here goes: the young man who would become my dad met the young woman who would become my mom at her apartment door. Her first words to him: “You’re not as bald as they said you were.” Ah, romance. Long story short, she liked his car, a racing-green Austin Healey convertible, and him too, no doubt.

Crooked River Burning*, a novel by Mark Winegardner, explores parallel love stories—between a boy from Cleveland’s West Side and a girl from Cleveland’s East Side (read: upstart vs. old money); and between the people of Cleveland and their city itself.

From the book jacket:

In 1948 Cleveland was America’s sixth biggest city; by 1969 [the year my parents married] it was the twelfth…In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks. Anne O’Connor, at twelve, is the apple of her political boss father’s eye. David and Anne will meet—and fall in love—four years later, and for the next twenty years this pair will be reluctantly star-crossed lovers in a troubled and turbulent country.

The city of Cleveland is a microcosm of this changing country. The author gives the reader a window into organized crime in the 40s, when we meet real-life Clevelander Eliot Ness; into the 50s rock and roll scene starring disc jockey Alan Freed; and into the race riots of the 60s, when we meet Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.

For sports fans (Winegardner is also the author of The Veracruz Blues about baseball), there are stories plenty about the Indians and the Browns (with Art Modell cast as the Machiavellian villain he was, IMO.) Masterfully blending fact (replete with entertaining footnotes) and fiction, this novel is comparable to the works of E.L. Doctorow. Where Doctorow explored New York, Winegardner explores Cleveland.

Does Winegardner know Cleveland! One of my favorite Cleveland bits—and never more appropriate than now, as we endure “wet-winter” into April:

“In Cleveland there is no spring. In Cleveland there is winter, then a wetter-meaner sort of winter…Then one day winter/wet-winter ends and, bingo-bango, it’s summertime.”

But why talk weather when we can talk love? Wingardner on love:

“A person can be in love with the idea of love. A person can fall in love with the idea of another person. Less commonly, a person can fall in love with another person.

In fact, a person always falls in love with the idea of another person, not the person. Falling in love with the actual person takes time and too much honesty…

Some people luck out. The thing they’ve been calling love turns out to be just that. Such people exist. Film at eleven.”

Oh, you were looking for love between David and Anne? I’m not spoiling much when I tell you that the most romantic setting in the book, a snowy New York at Christmastime in a posh hotel suite, and Anne is down with the flu. On the other extreme, the setting of the Cuyahoga (“crooked”) River on fire finds our protagonists in, well, love as real as it gets.

Is the book perfect? Not quite. For me, some of the real-life Cleveland profile sections ran a little long: among them, Mayor Carl Stokes, Cleveland newspaper editor Louie Seltzer, maybe-murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard, pioneer news broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim. Still, this book will find a place on my bookshelves, alongside Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, perhaps, for its mastery of a real time and place in history overlaid with a timeless love story and for a lyrical yet playful use of language.

But back to our fictional lovers…through their twenties and thirties, David and Anne attempt to make their childhood professional dreams (Cleveland mayor, and war correspondent, respectively) come true. But, like thwarted love stories talk of ships passing, most of us don’t become our childhood heroes.

If the real Cleveland love story—starring my dad and my mom—could have met the imagined one starring David and Anne, they would have come together in the late 60s. Both couples were in love as the real city burned its land and its water. The Cuyahoga River burned (helping to create the Clean Water Act); and the Hough Riots, among the first of the 1960s race riots, turned Clevelanders against their neighbors and even against themselves.

Like many Clevelanders who could, my parents left the city for a house in the country, where they would raise a few chickens and ducks, a goat named Esmeralda, and three human kids. In trading one setting for another, I’m sure they’d say they gained more than they lost. I wonder about those who didn’t leave.

Did Winegardner intend for this dual love story to be a cautionary tale? In 2018, one could read the book that way—especially through the lens of race. One of the most chilling parts of the book comes from Anne’s perspective. It’s a month after the riots, and Anne is questioning everything in her life and in her city:

“Human beings don’t destroy their own homes, do they? In Anne’s experience, they do…Rome burns. Has burned, is burning, always will be burning. Look harder. Smell it. It’s not Rome we’re talking about, sport. (Who knows but on the lower frequencies, Cleveland burns for you?) Yet you sit there. We sit there. Don’t move.”

My rating: 4.5 stars

What’s the best book you’ve read about your hometown? If you were going to write your own love story, where would you set it?

*Published in 2001 by Mariner Books (576 pages). Yep, I’m late to the party.

Like this review? Check out my “reviews” category above for more.

Thanks! ~ Rebecca

 

 

 

 

 

This is how it starts

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Here at Rust Belt Girl, I consider it my solemn duty to report the top news of the Rust Belt, generally, and my native Northeast Ohio, specifically.

The fact that news outlets such as the New York Times and NPR have already covered this event compels me to make this special report.

Of course, I’m talking about the zombie raccoons of Youngstown, Ohio.

Yep. The zombie apocalypse officially starts in Y-Town, birthplace of the Good Humor ice cream bar and Ed O’Neill from Married… with Children and Modern Family fame.

But I digress. Seriously, the raccoons of Youngstown are losing it, acting all “zombie-like.” As told by city resident and raccoon witness Robert Coggeshall to local news outlet WKBN-TV several days ago:

“He [a raccoon] would stand up on his hind legs, which I’ve never seen a raccoon do before, and he would show his teeth and then he would fall over backward and go into almost a comatose condition. He’d come out of it, walk around and then he’d do the same thing again. Get on his hind feet and show his teeth.”

Such strange behavior in daylight led authorities to investigate these “rogue” raccoons (that’s Smithsonian’s adjective of choice, not mine) and conclude that distemper–and not rabies–is likely to blame.

So stay safe out there in nature. (Humans can’t get distemper but dogs can.) Better yet, stay in and curl up with a good book this weekend.

On my literary plate: revising, polishing, and readying my behemoth WIP for the publishing road ahead; proofing a friend’s novel manuscript; submitting a flash fiction piece to journals; and writing a review of Mike Winegardner’s novel Crooked River Burning for a post right here early next week, when we return to regular raccoon-free programming.

What’s on your plate this weekend?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revisiting summers past through the abandonment photography of Johnny Joo

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This and all images in this post are by Johnny Joo at architecturalafterlife.com.

Go ahead and call it nostalgia. Or rose-colored glasses, cockeyed Midwestern optimism, or plain delusion. (Or, as snow remains in the forecast well into April here in my adopted southern home, call it willful reversion.) Whatever.

I dream of childhood summers in Ohio.

Summer, especially, felt like a gift from the heavens after enduring a frigid (Daily Prompt) winter in the Snowbelt and a five-minute spring that brought little more than a white Easter, a lackluster Maple Festival, and mud.

Summer, glorious, oblivious 1980s summer brought us SeaWorld.

Yep, that SeaWorld–not in California or Florida but in Ohio. No joke. The smallest of the SeaWorld parks, at 50 acres, SeaWorld Ohio opened in 1970 and was located on Geauga Lake, where 1950s-esque good-guy-gets-the-girl acts were performed atop pyramids of water-skiers. (How I wanted to be one of those girls!) Then there were the animals: the sea lions show, the jumping dolphins, the otters who were made to “talk” with piped-in chipmunk voices. The shark and penguin encounters. And, of course, the stars: Shamu and Mamu, the killer whales.

This was long before your average theme park attendee called them orcas or gave a thought to the health and socialization of large animals in captivity. Zoos still thrived; the circus hadn’t died.

By 2004, SeaWorld Ohio was basically abandoned. You can view eerie before and after photos taken by former SeaWorld Ohio animal trainer Nico Maragos.

More of a thrill-seeker? Geauga Lake amusement park was right across the lake from SeaWorld’s water-ski shows and called to us with her skyline of roller coasters. Ohio-based photographer Johnny Joo has captured stunning images of the theme park (like the one at the top of this post), which closed in 2007.

Here’s a couple more:

See them all via The Abandoned Geauga Lake pre-demolition

I’ve included Rust Belt photography on my blog before, but Joo covers not only abandoned places of work but of play.

I’ve also railed against abandonment photography, sometimes called ruin porn, for forgetting the people the places left behind. (Of course many of us did leave these places behind, in droves, often for warmer climes.) Still, Joo’s mission is exactly the opposite for his blog Architectural Afterlife: Preserving History Through Imagery. I hope you’ll check it out.

Are you a Rust Belt photographer with images to share? Let me know! Just summer-dreaming?

Post a comment here or on my FB page.