Sunday, August 28, 2011

Falling for a Smile

It is a flaw in writers that we like to eavesdrop. Jocelyn Lindsay can attest to this, since she is the one I tried desperately to ignore, but couldn't help overhearing at the Willamette Writers Conference, with scintillating results. It is now one of my most popular blog posts.

In listening to other's conversations, we can study human behavior, glimpse real-time dialog, log nuances in speech. It is research.

But today something else happened. I fell in love. With a smile.

I'd like to knock some sense into the young girl who is doing her best to ignore him. Her long, dark hair is touching the top of her short, short denim cutoffs, from which her long, tanned legs run into sockless hightops. A computer sits in front of her, silently maintaining an impregnable force field between them.

He's across from her, trying to talk her into joining him in some sort of fund-raising walk/run for charity. He tells her about it, his hands folded under his chin as he sends her a disarming smile over the top of her computer screen. She mumbles something and he leans forward, until his chin is nearly resting on the top of the computer. "Except, I wouldn't outrun you. I'd stop any time you needed to stop." His voice is smooth, like a polished mahogany table top. His dark eyes crinkle, focused on her, and the smile widens.

She runs her fingers over her mousepad, bringing up a set of images on her computer screen. She studies them. "I don't know," she maintains.

He is bewitched, his smile encouraging, indulgent. He shifts in the chair, shuffling his sneakered feet, careful not to cross over to hers, his legs covered in khaki trousers much the same color as the coffee he ignores. His gaze never falters. "You'd be fine. Give yourself a chance."

She mumbles something else, shrugging a shoulder, her fingers punching keys. He is undeterred, his wide smile showing a glimpse of sparkling teeth. "But it isn't a competition. I'd stay with you, beside you," he says.

A blender whirs and the smell of brewing coffee fills the air. She watches her screen and misses his gaze roam over her features, memorizing each one; misses the yearning; misses the delight in glint of his eyes, and the bright smile. There is no pleading in his voice, only a soft, gentle confidence in his straight back, his polite adherence to her undrawn line of demarcation.

She mumbles something else. He tips his head to the side. "You aren't giving yourself a chance. You could do this. No one would make fun of you. I'd be there with you."

She brings up another website, not even glancing up. She clicks the mouse pointer and a photo of football players appears. She shakes her head, hunches a shoulder. People get up from the table behind them, and clatter over the tiled floor to the door.

His gaze remains on her downcast eyes, and, although he still smiles, a sadness plays across his face. He gets up, straightens his navy blue polo shirt, runs a hand through his short brown hair and waits. She stands and he dips his chin. "Call me if you change your mind." She moves her body toward him, stiffly offering herself for a hug without lifting her arms from her sides. He reaches out and his arms surround her in a quick, gentlemanly hug. His eyes darken and he takes a long breath and lets it out slowly.

"Think about it. I'd be glad if you changed your mind."

He turns and ambles out.

I want to follow.

He may be in my next book.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Know your Genre

One of the things I learned at the Willamette Writers Conference is that agents are not kidding when they want to know the genre of your book, both when you pitch to them in person, and when you query.

They want to know on what shelf it will be in Barnes & Noble.

One of the reasons, I suspect, is because if you've written a erotic thriller and they only represent children's picture books, they won't have to waste much time. So, you may think, maybe I should do a broad spectrum of genres, so I might hit on one or two they represent.

Not a good thing. First, if you are serious about querying agents, you need to do your homework and find out if the agent represents your genre. There are plenty of websites that have already done this for you, but when you put the estamp on the email and send it on its e-way, you'd better have double checked the agent's website.

Second, if you say, "Well, it is kind of an action/adventure, sci-fi, multicultural, romantic thriller, western, detective book," the agent may think, "Is there one section at Barnes & Noble for all that?" Why give the agent a reason to reject your query just for that? They get hundreds of queries. Don't give them a reason to discard your hopes before reading a sample of your writing.

You wouldn't go up to the Jack-in-the-Box and say, "I'd like a bacon sandwich, a lettuce sandwich, with a slab of ground beef, and some tomatoes, and I'd like to have some onions, and dill pickles would be good, and I'd also like some cheese with mayo and toss in some mushrooms with catsup," would you? If you did, you'd better hope Jack is open 24 hours, because it will be a while before he knows what you really want.

If you say, "I'd like a cheeseburger, with bacon and mushrooms," Jack immediately knows what you want.

Have you written a book like the ones you like to read? Go to your local bookstore and ask what section those books are in. That's your genre.

Give the agent the same respect you'd give Jack.

There can be drawbacks to that. I went to B&N once when I was thinking of writing a book similar to the type of writing Janet Evanovich does. I asked what section I could find the newest Janet Evanovich book.

The clerk pointed to the front of the store. "On the best-seller table."

Oh yeah, my genre is Best Seller.

Editor's Note: Melanie Sherman is not suggesting you treat an agent like they are a fast-food, drive-up window.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cats are people, too

Family is important, including pets. But my cats have ripped the numbers off my keyboard, eaten a door stop, knocked down shelves and broken glassware. They've worn out their welcome at more than one family member's homes.

But I don't feel so alone after this weekend.

Yesterday, my niece, Kim, flew in from Texas with Sean, her significant other. I picked up my parents and we all met at my sister, Nina's, house to celebrate Kim's visit. We sat in the warm shade of Nina's backyard and listened to the gurgling fountain and the cascading waterfall of the fish pond. A bee buzzed by on its way to a fragrant patch of yellow and blue pansies, and birds chirped in the trees.

"This is so lovely and tranquil," I said.

"There are babies in the fishpond," Nina said. "The carp have produced at least three babies. If you stare at the water long enough, you'll see them darting around." She sounded like a proud grandparent.

"Well, it is nice to hear the water and the birds," my mother said.

"Not this morning." Nina grimaced. "One of the cats keeps bringing birds into the house and this morning there was a dead one on my bathroom floor."

We all frowned and I was glad my cats don't go outside.

Laurent, my brother-in-law, went in to make drinks and Nina followed to check on dinner. Kim and Sean settled into the soft cushions of the patio furniture and my father leaned his head back and snored softly.

The screen door banged open and Laurent barreled out, racing across the deck to the side yard. "We need help in the living room," he called behind him.

"Bird, bird," Nina yelled from inside.

Kim and I scrambled up and ran through the open doorway, through the kitchen to the closed door leading into the living room. We hesitated just long enough for Laurent to dash back in, clutching a pool skimming net. He stopped, one hand on the handle, listened to the desperate wails through the door, and threw it open. Kim and I rushed in after him, closing off the escape route into the kitchen. All the doors to the bedrooms were shut, as was the door at the top of the stairs, and Nina waved and gyrated on the stairwell, breathing in short gasps. The front door was flung wide.

“Stand between the living room and hallway and wave your arms,” she begged.

Laurent launched into the hallway with the net, and Kim and I blocked the way into the living room. And there it came, a frightened, flapping hummingbird, down the stairwell, into the hall, up against the front door frame, past our outstretched fingers, and into the living room, Laurent pounding after it, swinging the net. The bird staggered against one wall, up to the ceiling, across the room to another wall, back out into the hall, and down toward the closed kitchen door. A determined Laurent trounced after it, swishing the net.

“Is it bleeding? It is bleeding, isn’t it,” Nina wailed.

It didn't stay still long enough for us to check, as it propelled itself toward the living room. This time Kim and I jumped up and down, flailing our arms, fingers stretched high. The bird veered back along the ceiling and thwacked straight into the net, froze, and slid down the screening as Laurent bounded for the open front door. Just as he reached it, the bird hurled itself out into the safety of the wide open sky.

Outside, on the cool cement of the front porch, sat their black and white cat, watching proudly.

Perhaps my cats aren't so bad after all.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Protagonist's Goal and Conflict

This flower, at my lunchtime hideaway, waved in the warm summer breeze, cheering me, reviving me, until the buzz of the brown and gold creature grew nearer. The bee settled into its snowy surface. The flower drew in a quick breath and held it, stilled its movement, its white pedals brave under the tromping legs. The bee remained until it took what it wanted, then lifted, setting the flower in motion again, to sway on a relieved sigh.

It reminded me of my protagonist, and how she must deal with the conflict around her. Perhaps if she had held her breath and remained motionless, she wouldn't have fallen into worse circumstances.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Grunting at the Willamette Writers Conference

Before words, there was just a series of grunting.

C. C. Humphreys

This year's Sunday lunchtime guest speaker at the Willamette Writers Conference was C. C. Humphreys, actor and author of historical fiction and young adult books. He spoke about not just words, but words. Words that can move, incite, comfort. Words sharper than swords, softer than velvet. He mentioned that he was disappointed at how he read the lines when he played Hamlet,
years ago, at the part when Polonius asks the prince what he is reading, and he replies, "Words. Words. Words." Like, what do you expect I'm reading? But he feels he should have delivered the lines differently, like 1.) I'm reading words. 2.) Words, which are so amazing they evoke scenes in our heads. 3.)Words that may not have completely described an allusive feeling.

I thought of it today when I turned onto the gravel road leading up to my house and had to stop for a great blue heron in the middle of the road.

But that is not how I should write it.

Perhaps it would be:

A Great Blue Heron, his long neck stretched high, and the enormous gray wings spread, blocked the gravel road, forcing me to crunch to a stop. Until then I'd been anxious to get home, but now I smiled and watched as he flapped enough air under his wings to lift, gliding down the bank to the shady creek bubbling twenty feet below.

So, I can see C. C. Humphrey's point. Words...conveying meanings. Words...conveying a picture. Words...which fail to completely capture the joy.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Curing Love at the Willamette Writers Conference

Day Two of the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR

Robert Dugoni
New York Times Best-Selling Author

Today I took a workshop given by Robert Dugoni, in which he explained the crucial concept of the implicit promise. What I think he was saying is that if you are writing a murder mystery, there is an implicit expectation that the murder will be solved.

"In a thriller novel, there is the promise that the bad guy will be stopped. And in a romance novel, that the yearning of the woman will be...what is the word I want...cured...something like cured." He snapped his fingers a couple of times and glanced around the room helplessly.

"Fulfilled?" someone offered.

"Yes, that is it, fulfilled," he said on a sigh of relief.

"Cured," I snorted, "tsk tsk"

Unfortunately I sat in the very front of the room and Mr. Dugoni heard me. Being the best selling author that he is, he didn't take it as heckling. No, he took it as a writing prompt.

His mouth curved into a heart-stopping smile. "Yes, love is a disease," he quipped. "It is sick. You romance writers are writing about sickness. Sickness, I tell you, that must be cured by the end of the book."

The workshop was excellent, I learned a lot, and Robert Dugoni managed to hold us all spellbound for an hour and a half. And perhaps he is right. Perhaps love is a disease. But is there a cure? Or can we only treat the symptoms?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Willamette Writers Conference and Computer Sex

Welcome to the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon

Group Consult Room

This morning I cursed my alarm at 5:45am, groped my way into the shower, pulled on the clothes I'd picked out the night before, and shuffled out to the car. The 6:45 traffic was light and I arrived at the Airport Convention Center in no time. I clumped down the hall to the PDX room and checked out my "Staff" vest, searched for a stop-watch, and signed in at the volunteer desk, all before that morning cup of Starbucks.

It was fun meeting agents when I didn't have to pitch to them. I was stationed in the Group Consult area and all I had to do is smile and use my outside voice to say, "Attention: five minute warning, five minutes," and "Time is up, time is up." It amazed me that all the people who came in to give their pitch to the agents looked calm. No one clutched their chests and crumpled to the floor (although we had been trained on the procedure to follow, should that happen. My feeling was it was more likely to happen in the one-on-one consult area.)
Author Hallie Ephron gives advice to attendee

In the afternoon, I attended two workshops, both given by Hallie Ephron, author of Come and Find Me and Never Tell a Lie. She is a fabulous speaker. Between sessions, I opened my notebook and attempted to jot down some notes before I forgot them. It was not my intention to overhear Sara Mikulic and Jocelyn Lindsay. It just happened. I didn't know the subject because I'd actually been trying to tune them out, but there are times a word or two will jump out at you. In this case, I heard Jocelyn say several words, as though she were making a list, and one of the items was "computer sex."

I thought she was deliberating on possible plot points for her book. My pen dropped and I glanced over at them. "Computer sex? Is that in your current work-in-progress?"

They both stared at me.

"I heard you say computer sex."

They eyed each other before swinging their gazes back to me. Several seconds ticked by.

Heat traveled up my neck. "Sorry, I shouldn't have interrupted," I said. "I just couldn't help but hear you say it."

I picked up my pen just as Jocelyn said, "Computer science. Science."

"Computer science?'"

She nodded and they both burst out in fits of chuckles.


I don't know. I'll bet Jocelyn is, right now, mapping out a book about a computer science instructor falling in love with his computer.

Um, it was very nice to meet you, Sara and Jocelyn.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bumper Sticker Friday

One of my critique group members saw the following bumper sticker, and thought she might have to delete her manuscript.

"No, your life would not make a good book."

This may have been taken from the Fran Lebowitz quote

"Your life story would not make a good book. Don`t even try."

Probably good advice.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Verbal Fiction

When I was a little girl, my mother told me never to lie; that it would bring misfortune. To this day, I try to avoid lying at all costs. However, there are times I engage in verbal fiction.

Below is a conversation I had with a customer service representative at one of our suppliers in which I tried out a few seconds of verbal fiction. It was about 4:45pm, twilight, and dark gray clouds hung over the entire West Coast.

Acme: "Thank you for calling the Acme Company. How may I help you?"

(The man's desolate monotone sounded like he'd just lost six of his siblings in a volcanic eruption. My empathy glans kicked in immediately.)

Me: (sunny voice) "Hi. I need to place a purchase order."

Acme: (Brief sigh indicating his dog had also run away during the same lava spewing event) "Do you have your account number?"

Me: "Sure, it is P387112"

Acme: (another sigh) "Are you still at 383 West Elm?"

Me: "Yes."

Acme: "What is your PO number?"

Me: "3XT107"

Acme: (extremely pitiful sigh) "And what would you like to order?"

(Believe me when I tell you I hadn't planned this. It just happened as a result of listening to the voice of someone in the last stages of lockjaw.)

Me: "I'd like 44 zebras, and 17 giraffes."

(long pause)

Acme: "What?"

Me: "We could use some elephants, too, but I'm waiting for an elephant sale."

(Another long pause)

Me: "Oh, wait. No, I just want 44 pounds of purge material."

(Another long pause with some choking sounds)

Acme: "Who would place an order like that? I mean, who would call and order zebras and giraffes?

(This is where verbal fiction can be dangerous. Every once in a while, someone thinks you are spouting off non-fiction)

Me: "Well, not me. I'd have to have my general manager sign off on the purchase requisition. So, really, all I want is 44 pounds of--"

Acme: "Who would even be able to sign off on a purchase requisition like that? And who would you place the order with?"

Me: (glancing at clock ticking nearer 5PM) "Well, I don't know. I just wanted to cheer you up. So all I need is 44 pounds--"

Acme: "Monkeys. How are you doing on monkeys?"


Me: "Um...we have plenty of monkeys." (holds phone away for a moment and stares at it) "I just need 44 pounds of purge."

Acme: "'Hello, God? Yeah, I need 44 zebras, 17 giraffes, toss in about a dozen monkeys.'"


Me: "No monkeys. We don't need monkeys. Just purge."

Acme: "I wonder if there'd be a back order on the Giant Anteater."

(I trained my voice to sound as though my dog had run away in a sea of molten magma.)

Me: "Um...I just want 44 pounds of purge."

Later, I realized my mother was right. She should have also included verbal fiction in with the warning. For three days, until the purge arrived, I expected a big, flatbed truck to pull up with a cage of screaming monkeys and several very tall crates.

Perhaps an emailed purchase order would have taken less time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Writing has ruined me

About a year ago, I was coerced into taking the buyer's position at my company. Now this may seem like a dream-come-true to some people, but I hate shopping. Even when it isn't my money, it feels like my money and it is difficult to spend it, especially if forced to buy more than we need.

Besides not being a "shopper," the job requires a lot of emails. It isn't uncommon to find 5o to 100 emails glaring at me from my inbox in the morning.

Sometimes I think old fashioned mail would be faster, but then again, a simple telephone call would be faster still. Sure I realize it is 19th century technology, but it is so much faster than email. Here is an example:

Acme: "Acme Company."

Me: "Hi, I need to place a purchase order for 250 of those tiny little screws with the Phillips head."

Acme: "Are you talking about the X19PA47838?"

Me: "Yes."

Acme: "You have to buy 5,000 of those at a time."

Me: "But I only need 250.

Acme: "But 5,000 is the minimum order."

Me: Exaggerated sigh. "Okay. How much?"

Acme: "Three cents each."

Me: "Okay. When can we have them?"

Acme: "They'll go out today and you should have them on Thursday."

Me: "Okay. Awesome. Use purchase order number 73P81

Acme: "Thank you. Bye."

Now if you read that out loud, even spending extra time on the sigh, it is only about a minute.

But if I use email, all those questions and answers--over a series of emails--will take several hours. This is because I'm a writer, which has totally destroyed my ability to write. First I write the email, then I begin the first edit, taking out as many words as possible. I must open the thesaurus to look up alternate words for "awesome" (which is just plain silly to say in an email), and decide on a different word for the second "okay." Then I do a spell-check. Next I run it past my email critique group, and make any necessary revisions. The next step is to submit it to my email beta readers. After meeting with them over coffee, I make more revisions. Next comes another session with the critique group, a final revision, and I'm finally ready to hit the "send" button. And that is just the first email. I must repeat it for the second and third.

Does anyone else find that emails drain the life out of your day?