Verbs and Vindication at the Virginia Festival of the Book

When Valerie Tripp, author of the American Girl series, said that excess description in children’s books borders on “self-indulgent,” I swear I heard my Muse crack open a beer in salute. I attended Tripp’s session on the differences between writing for boys and girls at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville yesterday. Fred Bowen, the session co-presenter and author of two series of sports books for kids, agreed. Both said that metaphors had better explode to “earn real estate on the page.” Hallelujah, pass me the verbs!

As I traveled through various presentations from authors, editors, and agents yesterday in Charlottesville, the same theme followed me. During a session entitled “Dancing with the Manuscripts,” writers could submit the first 100 words of their manuscript ahead of time. The moderator read each submission aloud during the forum. Four representatives from the Moseley Writers’ Group served on the critique panel at the front of the room and held up a green card if they wanted to read more or a red card if the writing had problems. They consistently “green-carded” submissions that dropped readers right in the middle of the action with vivid language that moved. Those stories that launched into a description of the setting or some other story element generally ended up with a red card. The Moseley Writers also requested that authors use fewer “be” verbs and completely annihilate the word “it.” By this part of the day, the Muse had finished a case of beer and had a good buzz going.

I’ve always hated books with long descriptions like that Proustian crap where it takes two pages for some guy to walk across a room or three pages for the same guy to eat his eggs in the morning. I tend to put down books replete with metaphors and similes and devour plot-driven novels. William Zinsser refers to all these excess words as “verbal camouflage” in his book On Writing Well. Even though he gears his manual toward the creative non-fiction writer, I think his statement applies to any genre. But then, maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. I’m a twelve year old trapped in a late-thirties body: I still think farts are funny.

I believe the passive tense completely shits all over a good piece of writing as well. The sentence “From its pink shutters to its cute little door and hanging wisteria, the sweet little house was lovingly built with hand hewn boards and guarded carefully by enormous trees, standing sentry-like on both sides of the driveway” pisses me of. It makes me want to write a rebuttal like this, “The tornado ripped through the neighborhood, sucked the roof off the pink-shuttered house, snapped the guardian trees in half, and deposited giant logs atop the splintered hand-hewn boards.” Call me an asshole, but still! Let’s just pile some passivity on the roof of the poor house, power-wash it with adjectives, then hurl some adverbs through its windows until it collapses with a guttural moan and dies.

Given my preoccupation with flatulence, I must again remind you that I may not hold the qualifications to judge good writing. I will point out that some successful writers agree with me, though. My favorite author is Rita Mae Brown—I particularly love her earlier works like Southern Discomfort, Rubyfruit Jungle, Bingo, High Hearts, etc. I also like Cathy Lamb, Sarah Addison Allen, William Kotzwinkle, and Glenn Murray. All these fiction writers have VERY different styles, but their stories all move. Brown’s characters pepper the stories with colorful dialogue and bad behavior. Lamb creates a grandmother who thinks she is Amelia Earhart and flies around the room, while another character lights her thongs on fire after every one-night-stand she procures. Allen makes trees throw apples at villains. Kotzwinkle and Murray created the Walter the Farting Dog series for kids. Walter’s flatulence leads him on many exciting adventures that caused me to weep and snort with laughter one afternoon in a local bookstore.

All those books are short on passive verbs and long on action. Even the forays into the characters’ emotional lives literally shove the plot along. The authors tell us very little about their characters—they just turn them loose on the page and let them bump up against each other or fart repeatedly, as the case may be. Their crazy behaviors reflect their emotional lives, relegating all the “to be” verbs to the obsolete hole of darkness where they belong.

In her book, Starting from Scratch: a Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, Rita Mae Brown says, “If you want to get your black belt in boredom, load your sentences with variations of the verb to be.” (p. 67). I read this book during my first year in college and loved it! Ignore the chapter about “Computers and Other Expensive Knicknacks” that advises writers to buy an “IBM Correcting Selectric III” rather than a computer. Brown says, “You’re better off with expensive lighting than a computer. Those damn computers hurt your eyes, too” (p. 53). So what if she published the book in 1988? The writing advice is still relevant and reads like one of her novels.

Yesterday’s sessions at the Virginia Festival of the Book taught me that I need to tighten up my writing, make the first words of my books scream with excitement, and stay true to the type of writing that I have always loved. While Oprah may never endorse my books, plot driven writing sells, too. Hello, Hunger Games! Fred Bowen quoted Mark Twain and said something like “If you don’t write for money, you’re a blockhead!” Damn straight. Once the Muse recovers from her hangover this morning, the two of us will get to work. Liven up those verbs, and have a creative day!

Critique? You’ve Got to Be Kidding!!!!!!

My afternoon at the Virginia Festival of the Book offered me two distinct seat-cushion-up-ass experiences. The first occurred at the Dancing with the Manuscripts workshop. This was the forum where published authors from the Moseley Writers would work with each participant to speed critique the first 250 words of their manuscripts. I brought along the first part of a memoir I’m writing about my struggles with infertility. I didn’t figure this out in time to email my work days before, so I brought my page to the door and turned it in. What could it hurt?

It wasn’t until the moderator began the session that I realized what I had done to myself. She started by explaining that she would read each sample of work aloud. The four writers on the panel would hold up green cards if they liked the writing and wanted to continue reading or a red card if it sucked. Those weren’t the moderator’s words. They may has well have been because all I heard were red card and I translated everything else she said into SUCK! There were only about two hundred people in the workshop as well to add to the humiliation and naked flogging to which we writers had just subjected ourselves. The one positive beam out of the whole thing was that she would not be reading any names.

I quietly had a panic attack for the next hour while the moderator read each person’s work. Red cards, green cards, and comments flew as one by one each writer was anonymously vindicated or bitch slapped for his or her style. I learned enough about craft from listening to the comments to know that I would have earned myself a red card or two or (gasp!) four. If I had inhaled even the slightest bit of coal dust at that point I surely would have shat a diamond.

Lucky for me and my overwrought ego, my story was not selected for critique. By the end of the forum, I had conjured up enough nerve to ask for some feedback. I marched my relieved ass up front and stuck my manuscript under the nose of the first available commentator. My patient helper happened to be Fran Cannon Slayton, moderator of the children’s publishing session I just attended.

“You get to the point quickly,” she said when she was done reading. “I understand what it’s about right off the bat. I am, however, confused here.”

She pointed to the part I wrote about hormones.

“I get that it’s about you, but you’re making me think that you are a teenager or something with this `bubbling soup of hormones’ thing,” she said. “You also mention your parents and then some stepchildren. I’m assuming the kids are yours, but I’m not sure from here if they belong to you or your parents.”

Woah. I had a lot of work to do. I hadn’t thought about how confusing the whole thing was. I hadn’t taken the time to read this through any other eyes but my own. Oh, boy.

I walked out of the forum, breathless, but still intact. I had awhile to recover before the Agents’ Roundtable next. That workshop would be my second cushion-up-ass experience, which I’ll share in my next post.

Just the Cleaning Out I Needed!

The Virginia Festival of the Book was the comprehensive literary laxative that I needed. Bumping up against writers and agents all day gave the soul a smart polishing as well. I hardly know where to start, I had so much fun!

Once I made it into the C-Ville Omni after being lost in the damn parking lot for a few minutes, I found myself lost in an enormous foyer filled with book kiosks. Authors were signing books, writers were hawking self-published projects, and all I could smell were new pages hot off the press. I’m a book freak. When book orders come to my classroom, I open the box just to smell the books. Now that’s my kind of aromatherapy! I should have been a librarian. I’m just TOO weird.

I did finally overcome the book sale attention deficit to make it to my first workshop on self-publishing. The commentators did a terrific job of convincing me that I didn’t have a snowman turd’s chance in hell of ever getting together a book on my own. Between the copy-editing, book designing, formatting, publishing, electronic formats, publicity, and distribution, I would find my sanity thumbing a ride south to a Key somewhere off Florida. Not for me.

My next forum was on publishing children’s books. I picked up a few books by the authors on the roster for the signing afterwards. When I walked in the room, the cheery energy took my hand and led me right to an aisle seat amidst a bunch of happy looking industry hopefuls. The moderator, Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows, began the session by explaining that each author on the panel would tell their own publishing story.

Laura Joy Rennert, author of Buying, Training, and Caring for Your Dinosaur and the upcoming Emma, the Extra-ordinary Princess, spoke first. She’s actually a senior agent from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in California. I soon realized I was sitting fifteen feet from an agent who cuts six figure book deals for middle grade and young adult authors on a fairly regular basis. I thought of all the children’s manuscripts I have been working on lately. They’ve all been cooling in my hard drive for a couple of months, but suddenly I could feel my story Frank the Flamingo flap to the forefront for some attention. I tried to slow my racing heart so I wouldn’t develop sweat stains on my new blue shirt.

Ruth Spiro, author of Lester Fizz, Bubble Gum Artist, was next in line to share her story of being a stay-at-home mom who got her first story published on the first try, yadda, yadda, yadda. Lester is a really off-beat character with an unusual talent, so I see why her quick success was possible. Frank the Flamingo is also one wackadoodle anthropomorphic bird. I can do this.

Emily Ecton spoke next. She’s a writer and producer for NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me. She’s the author of Boots and Pieces, The Curse of Cuddles McGee, and Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments. She gave off a sweet, unassuming vibe. Anyone who writes about hamsters and lawn ornaments has to be way cool. Frank is a lawn ornament. Tee-hee

After Emily, Deborah Heiligman, author of Charles and Emma and twenty five other kids’ books, took the mike. What a funny personality! She’s a former Scholastic News writer. I’ve read many an issue of that publication with my students! She emphasized what great training it was for her current career to have to write that tightly. I liked her style.

Finally, Bonnie Doerr, eco-mystery author of Island Sting, shared her experiences in publishing. She’s a fellow reading teacher like me! I felt an INSTANT kinship! Her mission is to promote both reading and greener living. I love the cross-curricular appeal of her novel—she definitely knows how to hook reluctant readers! I couldn’t wait to take Island Sting back to school with me.

I loved meeting the writers after the forum. Emily Ecton seemed delighted that I had bought one of her books for the signing, and Laura Rennert’s autograph reminded my daughter to hug both her dinosaur AND her mommy every day. Ruth Spiro and I talked about using Lester Fizz to teach onomatopoeia, and I had a blast talking with Bonnie Doerr. We exchanged information, and she offered my kids a free Skype visit if enough students read Island Sting. What a cool opportunity!

My day was off to a terrific start!

Tomorrow Is the Big Day!

I’m questioning the sanity of heading off to Charlottesville to attend this writer’s festival at 6:30 a.m. on a blessed sleep-in Saturday. Geez, I get up at dawn’s deafening crack every morning. I could loll around in bed for a little while. Besides, we just “sprang forward” last Saturday, and I still haven’t recovered my lost hour. I feel like I have jet lag.

My inner bitch critic is being sneaky. Instead of trying to guilt me into staying home, she’s trying to tempt me with sleep. That’s a low blow. Precious sleep-in minutes have been a hot commodity since my daughter was born. I don’t need an alarm clock. Mine weighs about thirty pounds and stands in her crib at the top of the stairs shouting, “Mama! Goooooooooood MORNING, Mama! Tum DIT ME, PEEEEZ! I weady to DIT UP NOW!” She has no snooze button.

Sleep or no sleep, Charlottesville will not be denied. I’m going. No questions. I am sitting at my computer this Friday night trying to prepare my memoir about the struggles with infertility I faced before having my daughter. I am taking the first 250 words to the “Dancing With the Manuscripts” session. Published authors had agreed to come and give new writers feedback on their work. I feel pretty confident about what I’ve written. My experiences with magazine writing have helped me craft a decent beginning. I just tweaked it and gave it to my husband for review.

“Looks good to me,” he said. “Go with it!”

I’ve printed off several copies. I just finished making a few changes to a couple of children’s stories I have written to take with me, and I have some hard copies of my resume. I’m thinking that it can’t hurt.

Earlier, I packed my tote and ironed the new turquoise shirt my mom had given me last week. It is a striking blue, and I think it will help me stand out. I’m a minute fish in a gargantuan ocean. I need all the help I could get.

But, here I am, all ready to go. My inner bitch critic is silent. I guess I’ve exhausted her into submission for the time being. Look out world, here I come!

Holy Crap, I Feel So GUILTY!

The only way that I can successfully break into the business of writing and make any kind of living doing it, is to network and attend writing functions. This weekend, I plan to attend the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. The line-up of workshops at the Omni in C-Ville includes sessions with authors and agents. This is how I make connections. It’s free and only three hours away. Most publishing events of this magnitude are way out of my price range. Free. Close. I. MUST. attend.

That means time away from everyone. It means dropping my baby off with my parents for something just for me on a day when I’m not working.

Yes, but I haven’t had a day alone in two years; Tim works every weekend, I tell myself.

My inner bitch critic answers back, your parents are essentially raising your daughter, and you want to drop her off YET AGAIN? What kind of parent are you anyway? You went through so much to have this child and you won’t even spend the weekend with her?

I stew in the boiling broth of guilt for awhile before I respond vehemently to my trusty inner bitch critic, Piss off! I’m a writer.

It turns out that Mom and Dad are delighted to keep Kindred, and Tim is encouraging me to go after giving me a modicum of crud about the lack of time alone we’d had lately.

Ha! My inner bitch critic shouted victoriously.

I wavered, then rallied.

Ha, nothing! I responded back to her. Pick a cheek, and pucker up! I’m going to Charlottesville!


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