Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Missing in action, trying to get back to words

I normally update this blog at least once a week. So it felt funny last week when Tuesday rolled by, then Friday, and I hadn't posted anything. I walked around with a vague sense that something was missing, there was something I hadn't taken care of—but I didn't have time to attend to it.

A convergence of events kept me from spending any guilt-free time gathering my thoughts. There was the inauguration and fun activities in D.C. leading up to it; family visiting; paid editing work coming in; volunteer work deadlines; and, on top of everything else, the school system offering first a four-day weekend (MLK Jr., and Inaugural Tuesday off) then a three-day-weekend through yesterday—which has turned into another four-day-weekend due to what is, so far this morning, a wimpy dusting of snow.

Often in my adult life I've been swept into a current of activity that keeps me from getting to my desk or laptop for more than a few rushed or exhausted moments. Sometimes the current sweeps me further down shore than I imagined I'd be and I have a hard time getting back to where I had been before, or remembering just what lines or dialogue or ideas I'd been conjuring in my head, burning to set down. Ideas not extinguished, exactly, but no longer the same.

Yet I wouldn't want to be out of the current, sitting on shore observing it all. I chose this life, I know, because I would suffer a deep loneliness if I weren't around people in daily, home-based circumstances. I want to be part of a tribe, however small, rather than merely writing about the tribe.

The biggest problem for me in not writing for a few days is not the lost dialogue or forgotten metaphor but the little bit of unease in starting to write again. I've been waiting this long to say something, so it'd better be good. The long silence, though, has left me a bit tongue-tied. The act of writing feels a little unnatural. I've snatched a few moments to type this up this morning before my family awakes (sleeping in late due to the snow). It's all I'll have today since I really should attend to the edits that are sitting in my Inbox and I'll surely need to entertain a child at some point.

I want this to say more, and I wish it had more craft in it, but at least I've said something now and the white box I type into on Blogger is now filled with words.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Literary publications, contests and submissions guidelines available on the Web

In a continued effort to plump up the "Writers' Tools" section of this blog (and for my own use, so I'll have one place to put all these links), here is a list of useful and FREE (non-subscription) web sites for writers yearning to be published in literary journals:

• Literary Magazines :The NewPages Complete List - an A to Z listing of literary magazines, online and print, with links to their web pages. [Note: Newpages.com also has links to Writing Contests and other useful stuff, so check it out.]

• Poets & Writers Literary Magazines  - presents info in a useful column format, so you can see right away which journals accept electronic and simultaneous submissions, and what their reading periods are. Offers a search and a browse feature, as well.

• O. Henry Prize Stories has lists of journals from which it has drawn stories over the years arranged by frequency. It also offers a list of alphabetical Index of Literary Magazines, which gives contact info and web site only for each. The list appears selective (as in journals from whose works they take submissions for the O. Henry Prize) rather than comprehensive.

• The Best American Short Stories anthologies does not seem to have a similarly helpful web site; their web site offers only the barest of details. However, if you look at a paper copy of the most recent anthology, it lists American and Canadian magazines that print short stories.

• Finally, before entering a literary contest, you might want to check it out against the Writer Beware web page: Warnings About Literary Fraud and Other Schemes, Scams, and Pitfalls That Target Writers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Writer Profile: Mary Amato

Mary Amato is a Maryland writer who writes children’s books and teaches workshops on writing for children at the Writers Center in Bethesda (her next WC workshop, “What’s So Funny: Finding and Writing Humor in Children’s Books,” starts on January 15). Her books include Please Write in This Book, The Naked Mole-Rat Letters, The Word Eater and The Riot Brothers series of chapter books. She has also adapted “Chicken of the Family” as a musical, which premiered in Virginia in April 2008.

Mary has taught public and private school and also has worked as a dance teacher, a choreographer and a puppeteer. She also loves to write songs, sing and play the guitar and is in the duo, Two-Piece Suit.

I’ve heard Mary give presentations on aspects of creativity and spirituality to both children and adults at a local UU church, and have also heard her sing. To be truthful, I’m a little jealous of her ability to get up and perform and speak with such assuredness and grace, and of her seeming ease with moving between public and private personas as a writer/performer/artist. But that jealousy has provided me with much-needed kick-in-the-pants inspiration. She is a mother who has made time to write and has found a way to make a livelihood from her writing—a worthy goal for any other mother who loves to write.

For a list of Mary’s books, additional biographical information, descriptions of the presentations she offers to schools and libraries, and FAQs, see:

How did you decide to write children’s books? Did you write articles for children’s magazines first, or did you start out with a book-length project?

When I was eleven years old, I read Little Women and Harriet the Spy, and those two books made me want to write books of my own. Since I was reading children’s books, those are what I wanted to write! As I grew older, my love for the genre never dimmed. I didn’t know any writers, though, and didn’t believe it was actually possible. Raised to be practical, I got my undergraduate degree in teaching and gave up my dream for a while.

My desire to write kept popping up, though. I tried my hand at writing lots of short books (picture books) first and tried to get those published. I was rejected, but I often received nice rejections, which kept me going. After my first son was born, I decided that if I was going to spend any time away from him, I should spend it doing something that really mattered. I made an intentional commitment to embrace my dream of writing children’s books. I went back to graduate school in creative writing and chose a novel-length children’s book as my thesis project.

Did you have any kind of contract or interested party before you began writing your first children’s book?

I didn’t have any specific interest from an editor, but I did have those “nice rejections” from previous projects. By that time, I had also published a lot of articles, essays and some poetry in major, national magazines. Writing for newspapers and magazines taught me a lot about working on deadline and about being edited.

You said recently that you went from being a very unfunny writer to being a funny one. Was it an intentional change, since you’ve gone from writing for magazines and now write for children, or is it something that just occurred naturally along the way?

I was in graduate school, writing that thesis project—a very dark young-adult novel—when a fellow student told me that my writing lacked even a glimpse of humor. I took that criticism very seriously and began to study humor. I gave myself the task of trying to write a completely new, FUNNY, short story. I did it. Since that day, I have tried to consciously look for and exploit humor in some way in every book I’ve written. I don’t always read the front-page news, but I generally read the comics analytically—to see what works and what doesn’t.

You’re the only female in your household (two sons and a husband). Has this affected what you’ve chosen to write about? Do you think your children’s books would be different in any way if you were raising two dainty little girls?

I have four books out in a series called The Riot Brothers, which are about two wild and crazy boys named Orville and Wilbur Riot. Because I have two sons, people often ask me if the Riot Brothers are my own boys. They aren’t. I do think that my boys have had a huge influence on me as a writer. I grew up in a family of girls, so I didn’t really ever see things from a boy’s point of view. Being a mother of boys has given me much insight into the experiences and inner lives of boys. I feel my boy characters just as vividly as I feel my girl characters.

As a girl, I was a lover of dolls and making doll clothes and little things for my dollhouse. Sometimes I think that if I had girls of my own, a lot of my creative energy might be going into all those projects. Perhaps I would be writing less. Who knows?

Has being a mom influenced your writing or creativity in any other way?

Fay Weldon, an English fiction writer, once said that she refused to allow motherhood to be an excuse to keep her from writing. If she could only write one sentence before being interrupted, she would at least write that one sentence. I gave myself a little lecture when my kids were young: Don’t use them as an excuse. If I had a spare hour to write, I would write as much as possible in that spare hour. My husband would do something fun with the kids every Saturday—like take them to the park—and I would shut myself in the basement and write. (I’m no longer so tough. Now I can’t write in the basement!) The discipline was great.

Of course, seeing children grow up, experiencing all the incredible highs and lows with them has given me a lot of material for characters, for plot elements, for themes and for dialogue. To some extent, you re-experience your own childhood when you are playing with your children or getting them ready for bed, or nursing them through an illness. You are comparing your experiences with theirs. I can get into the mind of a child easily.

Tell me about how you came up with your new character, Amelia E. Hart. You’ve said she is “a great girl to balance out the Riot Brothers.”

Amelia E. Hart is the adventurous and funny cousin who comes to stay with Orville and Wilbur in book IV. The book will be out this spring, and I’m excited because she is such a strong girl character. Even though the Riot Brothers would seem to attract boy fans, I do have a lot of girl fans out there. I know they’re going to like her. The idea for Amelia actually came from a family who wrote me a fan letter. The letter was so great we ended up corresponding. In a follow-up letter, they suggested the idea of a girl cousin coming to visit. I had such fun developing the character and dreaming up surprising ways she could contribute to the Riot Brother world.

How much do you write every week? Do you have a daily schedule, or is it flexible, depending on what other things you have to do that day?

I write Monday-Friday from about 7:45 or so until 3:00 or so. I get grumpy if I don’t write everyday. I do take breaks to exercise, to cook, to do errands, etc.

What’s the best thing about being a children’s book author?

I love the letters I get from kids. They talk about the characters and the stories as if there is no question that they are all real.

One letter in particular was very touching. A teacher had asked her students to do book reports on a favorite book and to make sure and answer the question: What would you change if you could change one thing in the book? A girl wrote to me that she had chosen my book The Naked Mole-Rat Letters because it was her favorite book. This book is about a girl named Frankie who is struggling with her widowed father’s newfound romantic interest in another woman. My fan wrote that the only thing she would have changed in the book would have been to make sure that Frankie’s mother hadn’t ever died. Of course, if Frankie’s mother had never died, there would be no story. That told me that my reader was responding to Frankie’s life as if it were a real life. What a compliment to me, and a reminder of the wonder and power of story.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Where have all the newspaper pages gone?

I went back to North Carolina for the holidays and was saddened when I picked up a copy of the Winston-Salem Journal; it has continued to shrink over the years since I worked there as a reporter but now it's downright puny.

I've looked at the paper's web site, JournalNow, in recent years, but the web site seems cushioned from the stark, skeletal reality of what is now its paper edition. The Local section? It had been merged that day into the last two or three pages of the National section, signified only by a red box at the top that says "Local." Other sections were likewise combined, like Business/Sports. I think the Style section was part of B/S, as well. 

Some of the reporters who remain there seem to be filing two articles a day. And the paper's weekly "Relish" entertainment section seemed to be written entirely by its entertainment reporter, Ed Bumgardner, with the rest of its space filled in by AP/wire stories.

The paper's managing editor, Ken Otterbourg, wrote about some of the earlier job cuts in a November 14, 2006 post on his blog. Gone, at that point, were the movie critic, the NFL sports writer, the outdoor writer, cuts he took pains to justify. (Who has gone since then? And how was it decided who remains? The youngest/cheapest? The irreplaceable/local beats?)

Yes, yes, everything is available on the Internet now; movie reviews can be had on imdb.com and Netflix as well as national newspapers; sports news can be gotten on the wire and reprinted. And who goes outdoors anymore, anyway, what with Rock Band, the Internet and all those charming reality shows to watch on TV?

Maybe it's only nostalgia on my part, but I'm already missing the idea of the local, daily newspaper as the voice of the community. It was never the whole voice, never offered the cacophony of voices that blogs and other electronic mediums have made suddenly, universally available. 

Perhaps that's what I'm missing—its non-universalness, how the community newspaper used to be anchored in one place and time, and wasn't just a compilation of wire stories filled in here and there with local stories filed by harried writers; and how reporters had the opportunity to take all that could be written about a place and filter it through their experience and expertise, so that the most important and newsworthy were sure to be documented.  

The best thing about an active, well-staffed newspaper is that most stories are not filed entirely from a solo perspective (as so much Internet writing is, including this blog), but present an educated, group perspective. Layers of editors there read through and discuss/edit the stories, adding additional perspective and content along the way, and other reporters have the time to discuss their stories and share information and contacts.

I'm not sure this is happening anymore or is going to happen for much longer. We'll have to rely upon thousands of voices of citizen reporters, preoccupied with documenting their own lives, or the few remaining reporters who have only the thinnest layer of expertise guiding them when they cover multiple beats, and write only about the most obvious or the most easily found.