Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dad, me, and the OED

I get my love of reading from my parents. They're both voracious readers, and their books are stacked at least three deep on the bookshelves they've shoehorned into every available space in their home.

As far back as I can remember, I had access to books - lots and lots and lots of books. My only shortage was time - there simply wasn't enough of it to read everything I wanted to read. So yes, I was one of those kids given to reading under the covers by flashlight when I should have been sleeping. And though I know my parents were on to my dodge, I don't remember ever being ordered to shut off the flashlight and go to sleep. As strict as they were, bedtimes were never enforced if it meant closing a book before I was ready.

So while my parents share equally in laying the foundations for my love of reading, my love of words - their power to entertain, persuade, amaze, incite, and inspire - was a gift from my father. It came as he and I played the card game "Authors," when I was still too young to have read any of the featured novels (no wonder he always won), and he shared his memories of why each book made an impression on him the first time he read it. It came when I was about 10 and he handed me a copy of Freckles as if it were solid gold, with the wish that I would love it as much as he did (to this day, Freckles is one of my favorite books, and not just because of the words on the page). It came again and again over the years as he would look up from something he was reading and say, "You have to read this." And then I would read, and he would wait, and when I looked up we would shake our heads and say, "Wow!" in unison, marveling together at the power of words wrought by a master.

I don't think either of us realized it at the time, but word by word and wow by wow, he awoke in me the dream to be a writer. And though I didn't have the courage to go for it all out, the way Jo Rowling did when she scurried down the Classics hall instead of studying something that would pay the bills, I settled on journalism, the best compromise of art and pragmatism I could find. I did it at least in part to honor him, by making a living with the words he taught me to love.

Our mutual fascination with words has endured, as our gifts to each other this past Christmas illustrate. I gave him "The Adventure of English," a BBC-produced program on the history of the English language from the pre-history roots of Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf to the ways technology and the internet continue to change and enrich the language today. He gave me a matched, leather-bound set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary and its accompanying thesaurus. I was, in a word, awestruck. As I seek to become a novelist, the man who first taught me the love of words had equipped me with the best possible companions for the journey.

Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, the phone rang. It was Dad. "You're probably going to think I'm nuts," he said, "but that same book club where I got your dictionary and thesaurus is having a sale on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives you every synonym for a word in the order it came into the language and the year of the first known use. I thought that might be helpful for someone who writes historical novels. Would you like a set?"

Would I like a set?!?!?! Although I'd never mentioned it to him, the Historical Thesaurus of the OED has been on my Amazon "wish list" since its publication was first announced, long before its formal release. But at $400 plus shipping, it wasn't an indulgence this unpublished novelist was likely to allow herself. "What's the price?" I asked, barely able to breathe. "Two hundred sixty-five dollars," he said. "Plus shipping. If you won't let me buy it for you, maybe we can split it." I know a good deal when I hear it. And though I insisted on paying the full cost, no kid with a new bicycle was ever happier than my dad when I told him to place the order.

The shipment arrived two weeks ago. Though I know it nearly killed him, Dad resisted the temptation to open them for a full week, until I could drive to Raleigh and we could share the experience together. We spent a couple of transcendent hours thumbing through the tissue-paper pages as I read the entries aloud and he looked on with shining eyes. If I live forever, even with this tremendous resource sitting open at my fingertips, I doubt I'll find a word from any era that sums up that golden moment better than the one we used time and again through the years when overwhelmed by the sublime wonder of the English language: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

That's from the Scots, by the way, and came into the language in 1540. Don't like wow? The thesaurus offers a quarter column of synonyms from Olde English to the 21st Century. If that isn't cool, I don't know what is. Yup, I'm my father's daughter, through and through.
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Sunday, May 23, 2010

touched by history

Battery Buchanan guarded New Inlet, the main access to the Cape Fear River

When I worked for the Star-News in the early 1980s, we did a number of special publications, thick tabloids that got slipped into the regular newspaper five or six times a year, usually on Sundays. Publishers loved these tabloids because they brought in a lot of incremental advertising revenue. Reporters, for the most part, loathed them, because the work was piled on top of our regular assignments, and we never got an extra dime for it.

So it was with the largest and most onerous of all the annual tabloids, the Cape Fear Coast tourism insert. I still remember the grumbling when the assignments were handed out, and I probably did more than my share of the grousing. But the assignments I dreaded the most are, almost without exception, the ones that had the most profound effect on me as a person, and so it was with the tourism insert.

To this day, I can't tell you how the editors decided who would do which stories. Perhaps because I had just moved to Carolina Beach, the northernmost town on Pleasure Island, I drew several assignments to write about its various attractions.

In fact, Pleasure Island isn't an island at all. It's the southern tip of New Hanover County, which grows increasingly narrow as the Cape Fear River flows southeast to the Atlantic Ocean. At its terminus, a spit of land just wide enough to walk on, river, sea and sky merge into a vastness I've never experienced anywhere else. And it was here, on this narrow strip of land, that perhaps the greatest Civil War battle you've never heard of was fought, irrevocably sealing the Confederacy's fate.

I knew nothing about Ft. Fisher and what happened there as I drove south in search of the state historic site. My plan was to grab a few pamphlets from the visitor's center and tick the assignment off my list as quickly as possible. Although I never much cared for history, probably because of the dreary way in which it usually is taught, my father loves it. And so I spent more of my childhood than I care to remember being dragged from one Civil War battlefield to another. Since he'd never dragged me to this one, I figured it couldn't have been very important. I figured wrong.

Much of the eastern face of Ft. Fisher has fallen into the Atlantic since the Civil War, a victim of erosion. But in its day, the fort's massive earthen walls were so imposing the Union considered it unassailable. It was known as the "Confederate Goliath," and the shot from its cannons could hit any ship of the Union blockading squadron foolish enough to stray within five miles of its batteries. Under cover of its protection, hundreds of blockade runners slipped in and out of Wilmington, bringing the supplies that sustained the war effort and the Confederate populace.

By 1864, thanks to Ft. Fisher, Wilmington was one of the last Confederate ports standing and the most important, due to its proximity to the main battle lines in southern Virginia. The goods that flowed into Wilmington on the blockade runners kept the Confederate Army supplied and provided a last ray of hope for a people worn down by years of rampant shortages. That alone is reason enough to remember Ft. Fisher. But here's an even better one: The battle that eventually felled the fort was the largest combined land/sea military assault in the history of warfare -- until D-Day in World War II.

That one fact boggled my mind. How could it be that a battle of that magnitude, a battle that closed the last source of supply to General Robert E. Lee's army, was little more than a footnote in Civil War history? Where was the justice that allowed General William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea to obscure so compelling a tale? As I stood on the remains of the earthenworks, gazing out to sea as the soldiers of Ft. Fisher had done 115 years before me, I felt a compulsion to help tell what happened there, both to honor the lives lost and to capture the drama of this remarkable place and its remarkable -- if largely unknown -- place in history.

A seed had been planted. It was a seed that would lie dormant for nearly 30 years and then sprout in a most unexpected form ... as an historical romance novel.
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Friday, May 14, 2010

coming home to a place i'd never been before

The photo at the top of this page and the one in the middle of the "Happiness is..." page (check it out; it's gorgeous!) are of perhaps my favorite place on earth: my hometown of Wilmington, NC.

When I say Wilmington is my hometown, I don't mean it in the sense most people do. Although I was born in Wilmington, I didn't grow up there. My father worked for IBM in the days when those three letters stood for "I've Been Moved." It got so bad, or so the story goes, that I looked up from my books one day when I was 4, surveyed our house with a disparaging air, and declared "this place is getting old." We'd lived there less than six months.

With all that moving, I never visited Wilmington until I was 21 and about to graduate from college with a degree in journalism. The economy was bad in the late 1970s, the newspaper business was in a severe recession, and jobs were tough to come by. But my adviser at UNC-Chapel Hill, the legendary Jim Shumaker (yes, that Jim Shumaker, the inspiration for Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strip) was friends with Charles "Andy" Anderson, executive editor of the Wilmington Star-News. Andy was doing a great job of turning the one-time rag into a scrappy and fast-growing paper, in part by hiring cheap, hungry, young talent. Andy had a job opening for a cub reporter. Shu, God bless him, got me an interview.

As I drove through the ninety-mile swath of scrubby farms, scrubby pine forests, and scrubby trailer parks that lay between Raleigh and Wilmington in the late 1970s, my hopes of landing the job turned to depression. Especially after four years on the lush, green campus of UNC-CH, this did not look like a part of the world where I wanted to spend my twenties. As I tooled down the last ten miles of U.S. Highway 421 -- flat, sandy, and barren, except for a couple of hideously ugly chemical plants -- I wondered what I'd ever done to Shu to merit being banished to this wasteland. This was how he helped his star pupils?

And then I drove onto the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

It was a blistering-hot day. The air had shimmered above the pavement and the endless stretches of sand for more than two hours as I drove, and I was half blind from it. So when the tires of my popsicle-orange Pinto began to sing on the bridge's metal span and Wilmington unfolded before me, I knew it had to be a mirage. A wide, placid river. Charming brick and wooden buildings lining the shore. Historic houses in cool shades of blue, green and yellow, set among the soaring trees that climbed the bank. And above it all, the stunning spire of First Presbyterian.

I was craning so hard to take it all in, I'm not sure how I managed to cross the Cape Fear without causing a major pileup. But by the time my tires hit the pavement on the east side of the bridge, I knew that I would convince the editor I was the gal for the job -- or die trying.

Well, the interview nearly killed me. After grilling me for more than an hour (it only seemed like four), Andy told me I had to pass one more test just to remain in the running for the job. I want you, he said, to recite the chorus to "Drop-Kick Me, Jesus." Stunned into silence, I stared at him. I'd never even heard of it. I left the interview convinced I'd blown my chance to live and work in the town that had already stolen my heart.

Lucky for me, Andy has a quirky sense of humor and an eye for talent. Somehow, he spotted talent in me even though I was shy, insecure, and painfully unaware of the fact that he'd been pulling my leg. Or maybe Shu's recommendation was all I needed, and the interview was just a formality. Or a frivolity. Whatever the reason, Andy hired me.

My love affair with Wilmington -- and my gratitude to and affection for my first and best executive editor, who took a chance on a scared kid when no one else would -- endures to this day. Next Up: The assignment that inspired a novel.

Editor's Note: The Wilmington photos were taken by (and are copyrighted by) my friend Jamie Moncrief, a colleague at the Wilmington Star-News in the 1980s who is now staff photographer at UNC-Wilmington. Jamie dug these out of his voluminous portfolio just to decorate my blog. Now that's a friend! If you ever want to purchase photos of the stunning Cape Fear Coast (Wilmington and the beaches at Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure) and the people and places that make it so special, check out Jaime's portfolio on Flickr at: jmoncriefuncw

Monday, May 10, 2010

going pro

I just returned from the Post Office, where I dropped off my application to become a PRO member of Romance Writers of America. PRO is a weird little purgatory where writers who are serious about getting published drift while waiting for THE CALL that will offer them a contract and convert them to a PAN -- a member of RWA's Published Author Network.

The requirements for PRO are that you be a member of RWA, document that you have completed a work of romantic fiction of 40,000 words or more, and prove that you have submitted this work to an RWA-recognized agent or publisher. I've had requirements 1 and 2 covered for quite a while now. And while I have submitted to agents and editors in other genres before, the manuscript I'm currently shopping around was my first romance submission. So I packaged up my rejection letter, my PRO application, and a copy of my novel on CD, and dropped my proof-of-progress at the Post Office, leaving it with the desk agent / minister who always prays over my important writerly packages before sending them on their merry way.

I'm not certain what being PRO earns a writer, besides a rather nice pin to wear on your lapel. The RWA website says PRO focuses on the business side of writing rather than the craft side, and is intended to help PRO members establish relationships with publishing professionals. To learn more, you need to be accepted as a PRO and given the keys to the city -- the magic combination of letters that will unlock the resources stored in the PRO-members-only section of the website. And though I don't know what they might be, I'm eager to get in there and dig around.

One reason for my anticipation is that, even without access to this elite site, RWA has already given me more than I ever dreamed of getting when I joined. I've belonged to a number of professional organizations for various writing genres. They all have their strengths. But, until a friend introduced me to RWA, I never encountered one that put so much emphasis on craft. Through online courses sponsored by RWA chapters, I have honed my skills in point of view, showing versus telling, scene construction, character development, plotting, pacing, and non-verbal communication. I discovered that I needed these courses by entering RWA-sponsored contests where published and aspiring writers pointed out the flaws I didn't even know to look for in my work.

If you want to learn how to write fiction and write it well, regardless of genre, RWA is a great organization to help you grow at your craft. I was writing middle grade novels when my friend first suggested that I join. I must admit that, in the early going, I scoffed at the idea. I'm not scoffing any more. If being PRO teaches me half as much about marketing my work as my rank-and-file membership taught me (and continues to teach me) about polishing it, then publication is within reach.

So if you're looking for me, try the mailbox. I'll be camped out there, like Ralphie waiting for his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin, until my PRO pin and passcode arrive.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

slings & arrows

In the writing game, the risk of rejection is everywhere. And no threat of rejection is more daunting, more potentially lethal, than sending your work to an editor or agent who can dash your dreams with the stroke of a pen.

If you take this risk and send your manuscript, your baby, out into the world in hopes of being published, you are one of two types: naive and delusional (the grandmother who just knows Houghton Mifflin will be thrilled to give her a six-figure advance on her rhyming alphabet book because all of her grandchildren love it); or a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie - battle-weary and wounded, but still hopeful of victory. Yes, he's ridiculous, trying to fight without arms or legs. But I love his never-say-die spirit.

How can anyone be sure, though, whether they're more like the delusional grandma or the dauntless knight? As the tuneless-but-clueless people who audition for American Idol prove year after year, the utterly talentless are the last ones to know how truly bad they are. What if, despite dozens of classes, conferences, and retreats, and five years of twice-a-month critique group meetings, my work was as ghastly as their singing?

That's where total strangers come in handy: the total strangers who judge writing contests, to be precise. In the preliminary round, that mostly means other writers in your same genre. And, if you make it past them to the finals, editors and agents who actually know what they're talking about, if only because they make a living doing what you only dream of.

And so, with what I hoped to be my best effort to date, I entered contests. I expected to do this for a long time before even daring to think of submitting to an editor or agent. Surprise, surprise. In the very first contest I entered, I took third place. Encouraged but not convinced, I finished the manuscript and entered parts of it in six more contests. I just missed the cut in two, made the finals in four, and took first place in two of those. Even more amazing, an agent who judged the finals of one of those contests (not one of the ones I won, remarkably) asked to see more of my manuscript. And not just any agent. An established, well-respected, highly successful agent with a top New York agency.

To be frank, the invitation terrified me. Here was the acid test. Was my work up to the challenge? Weighed down by self-doubt (a common writer malady), it took two months to polish the first 50 pages and write a synopsis and cover letter. It took three more days to actually get up the courage to hit "send" on the email. And as I waited for a response, I tried to rein in my galloping hopes. I reminded myself that the agent wasn't a big fan of the time period I'd chosen for my novel and that she felt my contest entry might be a bit plot-heavy for a romance. I reminded myself that even J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter about 100 times before she found someone to publish The Sorcerer's Stone. In short, I prepared myself for disappointment.

But deep inside, a seed of longing had been planted.

The agent's email arrived two days ago. Yes, it was a rejection. But it was a good rejection. A great rejection, in fact. She praised my plot, my characters, my writing. She seemed genuinely sad to have to tell me no. But she didn't love the book with her whole heart, and an agent must love a book to be an effective advocate for it. She encouraged me to keep looking for someone who could love it the way it deserved to be loved. And then, miracle of miracles, she invited me to submit again when I have something else. Rumor has it this almost never happens. And that made it, in short, the gold medal of rejection letters.

Now, this agent is a superb professional, but I know from friends who have met her that she's also a lovely person. Is it possible she let me down easy? Of course. But in this, as in the contests, I have been extremely blessed. She could have shattered me with a form-letter response or a harsh comment. Instead, she inspired me. In fact, a new story is already percolating in my brain. One I think she just might love with all her heart. And, while I write it, I'll keep shopping the book she couldn't quite love to other agents and publishers. Because I'm the Black Knight. This is my quest, and now that I've dared to go for it, I'll never say 'die.'

Monday, May 03, 2010

an unromantic in paris

Everything they say about the romance of Paris is true. The city’s magic even works on the decidedly unromantic, including my husband.

Now John is one of the best husbands a woman could ever hope to have. He’s intelligent, honest, ethical, fiercely protective, funny, sweet – my best friend for nearly thirty years and counting. But romantic? Not so much. He doesn’t dance; can’t make him. The one time I received flowers with his name on the card, I discovered later that his mother sent them. If he ever comments on what I’m wearing I might have a heart attack. As it hasn’t happened in thirty years, though, I’m probably safe.

But even John, it seems, is not immune to the romance of Paris.

Especially at night, when the monuments glow, Paris is utterly seductive. So despite the early spring chill, we fell into taking long strolls after dinner. Because it’s so beautiful and only a block from the hotel where we stayed, those strolls always led to the Louvre. And each night, in the acoustically perfect outdoor passageways that cut through the palace, we would encounter one of two musicians: a fiercely intense and gifted cellist, or a playful but equally talented classical saxophonist.

On our last walk through the Louvre the saxophonist was in residence. We stopped to listen for a while – the only pedestrians anywhere in sight due to the cold – and he seemed to revel in having an audience. Because we’d enjoyed his performances all week, John dropped a handful of Euros into the musician’s case and we strolled away, holding hands.

That’s when the magic happened. The saxophonist interrupted the classical piece he was performing – stopped in the middle of a complex run, no less – and began to play La Vie en Rose, the beautiful ballad that is virtually the city’s theme song. Never in all the times we’d seen people drop money into his case had he changed his tune, let alone play a pop song. It stopped us in our tracks. We stared at each other, dumbfounded.

And then the magic became a miracle. John wrapped his arms around me and, humming the tune into my hair, began to sway. We were dancing. In the Louvre. To our own private performance of La Vie en Rose.

In that moment I thanked my lucky stars for my unromantic husband. If he did this sort of thing all the time it wouldn’t have been special. It wouldn’t have been magic. He’d waited thirty years for this moment, and when it came, he made it perfect. And isn’t that the essence of true romance?