Dots and dashes – they’re everywhere, man!

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When my daughter was at summer camp one year, she and a friend devised a secret code. It involved different configurations of coughs, sneezes, pencil taps, and throat clearing sounds, and it enabled the two girls to communicate during quiet time.

Slightly evil and remarkably devious, perhaps. Hilarious? I thought so. So did one of the counselors, when I told her about it years later. We shared a good belly laugh over it.

People have been communicating without words for centuries, from drums to smoke signals. One of the best-known methods in our day and age is Morse code, although already it’s becoming something of a lost art. In my book, THE VOLUME OF WATER, one of my main characters, Mary, is a HAM radio nut. Back in the 1960s, when my novel takes place, you had to be proficient in Morse code to get your HAM license (that’s no longer the case).

315px-International_Morse_Code.svgMary, lonely kid that she is, is an extreme audiophile. She hears Morse just about everywhere. A bird, her heartbeat – it’s all translatable for her. In other worse, the world literally speaks to her through Morse.

She’s not the first one to feel that way, I was rather surprised to find. A quick and unscientific Google search proves that Morse is sort of everywhere. Every subject has its nerds, and that goes for birdwatchers and rock-n-rollers as well. Case in point, the Junco hyemalis oreganus, also known as the Morse code bird. Here’s a sampling of their sound, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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The Morse Code bird: the original Twitter

There are even secret Morse messages in popular music – and I’m not just talking Abba songs here. Not to suggest that Rush fans are a bunch of giant nerds, but well

Fortunately, learning Morse is relatively easy. There are several sites that will even translate normal type into code for you so you can impress your friends. Can you guess what hopeful bestseller this is? – …. . / …- — .-.. ..- — . / — ..-. / .– .- – . .-.

I typed the title of my book into a Morse code music making page I found, and now I can’t get the rhythm out of my head. I think it’s a rhumba. Either that, or headhunters will be here shortly. Hmmmm, wonder if there’s a way to incorporate subliminal audio messages into a query letter?

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Four minutes and 38 seconds

As March 27th approaches, it’s hard to get earthquakes off my mind. Below is a great short film by the U.S. Geological Survey that reveals the scope of the biggest earthquake ever to hit the Northern Hemisphere, the Good Friday Quake that hit Alaska on March 27, 1964.

The ’64 quake lasted over four minutes. That’s a ridiculously long time for an earthquake. Four minutes is how long it takes Elsa to sing “Let It Go” in the movie Frozen. It’s how long hard-core, Olympic-level runners run to reach a mile. In four minutes on a typical day in the United States, 30 babies are born, 38 people die, and 4,080 Big Macs are eaten. Four minutes in a 9.2 earthquake is forever.

Watch the video. When you’re done, check your watch. The video below – four minutes and four seconds long – is shorter than the quake itself.

Top Ten Things on Twitter for Writers

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It is difficult for non-writer types to understand this, but spending time on Twitter is a very important part of being an author. So is a dedicated LOLZ board on Pinterest, a platinum Visa card attached to your Amazon account, and a solid subscription to Netflix. But I digress.

Most often when you tell people you’re a writer, they imagine that you spend the day in your pajamas, drinking hot chocolate and dawdling on social media, getting all the words down only after midnight when lesser mortals sleep. That’s only partially true – I personally drink Diet Mountain Dew. And also, generally, unless the fever to write hits me first thing in the morning, I get dressed.

However, I do scan my twitter feed several times a day. This is a legitimate tool for me as a writer; there’s an unbelievable amount of information tweeted hourly regarding how the publishing industry works, what agents are looking for in new clients, and the dos and don’ts of being a Real Writer. You just have to know where to look.

So toward that end, I’m sharing my favorites in the Twitterverse. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, and of course it reflects my personal bias toward sarcasm and snark. Please forgive any omissions – if I’ve forgotton anyone important please let me know!

1. #tenqueries
If you do nothing every day but brush your teeth and check your Twitter feed for #tenqueries, the day is well spent. Literary agent Margaret Bail (Inklings Literary Agency) goes through the slushpile of queries in her inbox and in 140 characters or less tells us whether the query gets moved to the junk file or she requests part or all of the manuscript in question. There are far more passes than requests, however, and watching this hashtag gives awesome insight into what most querying writers do wrong. Plus, her avatar is a cupcake – pure literary genius!

2. @Janet_Reid
This is the Twitter feed of the snarky shark of agentdom, Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary Management. She reps uber-author Patrick Lee, which tells you right there she’s Awfully Darn Cool. By following her feed you’ll get witticisms and links to her blog, on which she posts and answers typical questions from would-be writers and also hosts the semi-famous 100-word contests, which are brilliant and fun. Anything you ever wanted to know about querying but were afraid to ask is answered on her blog under QueryShark, and if you’re not skeered of shark bites, you can submit your own query for evisceration. Be afraid.

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Writers are friends, not food.

3. #MSWL
This little gem of a hashtag gets you an eagle-eye view of which agents are looking for what – “ManuScript Wish List,” get it? What? You just wrote a contemporary YA novel about a female protag who deals contraceptives like heroin, and there’s dinosaur porn and tigers? Cool. Check the hastag – odds are someone is looking for that very thing. But beware: the tag is to be used by agents and editors ONLY. Use it to spam your latest kindle e-book and you will be sent to a special place in hell normally reserved for child molesters and people who use the word “irregardless.”

4. #askagent
You know, when I initially stumbled across this hashtag, I thought it meant there was finally a chance for us females to get inside the head of men. As in, ask-a-gent. Because I’d really love for someone to explain to me the huge appeal of incendiary salsa and also bewbs. Sadly, this is not that. It is, however, another oppurtuity for would-be writers to get inside the head of agents by directly asking them their most awkward burning questions in front of thousands of people. Watch the hashtag for when the agents are available, and grab the popcorn.

5. @LitRejections
What writer wouldn’t love someone named for the agony and angst all of us experience in the query and sumbission trenches? Literary Rejections not only feels for us, man, they post all kinds of upbeat suportive tweets, plus infomation on new agents hungry for fresh meat – I mean, new talent, conference info and other cool, writer-y stuff.

6. @jsinsheim
Another agent extrordinaire, Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. Not only does Ms. Sinsheimer post cool stuff about writers and books and stuff, she also loves food, and tweets these ridiculously mouth-watering recipes and photos. Especially cheese. Also, she occasionally hosts hilarious high jinks like the Bad Query Contest.

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That PBJ doesn’t look so hot now, does it?

7. #fakepitmad
Don’t get me wrong. The real #pitmad – a contest of sorts where writers pitch their query in 140 characters or less to agents perusing the hashtag – is very near the pinnacle of awesomeness. But holy cow, if the the sarcastic and witty #fake version doesn’t make you pee your pants, you need to take your sense of humor in for a tune-up.

8. @MissDahlELama
Wait, you’re not already following Dahlia Adler on Twitter? What the hell is wrong with you? We’ll wait while you go fix that (taps foot). There. Not only is Miss D a brilliant writer in her own respect, she’s also the owner of the stellar blog dailydahlia.wordpress.com, which features author spotlights and all kinds of great advice.

9. #amwriting
This is the hashtag for writers who should be writing but whose brains are ready to explode and so they’re on Twitter instead. Because all they really #amwriting at the moment is a 140-character public bubble of agony. At least it’s fun to commiserate. Subtle variants of this hashtag include #writing, #amediting, #amrevising, and #amdrinking.

10. #BePositiveHour
This beautiful bit of beautiful in a harsh, ugly world was started by literary agent Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary, who understands that writers have FEELS, dammit, and need encouragement from time to time. When you’re at that point where you can’t decide whether to pour kerosene on your laptop and light a match or drown your troubles in a five-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids, go to the hashtag first. You’ll feel better, I promise.

So that’s my Top Ten on Twitter. I’m sure I left out some good ones. Let me know what I forgot! I’ll check the comments as soon as I finish this bag of Sour Patch Kids and get dressed.

It’s all in your mind (well, actually it is)

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One of the best teachers I ever had was professor Ron Spatz at University of Alaska Anchorage, who was then the head of the Creative Writing Department and also the editor of the prestigious Alaska Quarterly Review literary journal.

Ron Spatz was one of those people with the unusual gift of bringing out the best in people. He didn’t settle for second-best from anyone, and had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was handing in something less than they were capable of. I could fill a book, I suppose, with great Ron Spatz-isms. But there is one lesson he taught us eager would-be writers that has really stayed with me, even 15+ years later. It’s a simple idea, really, but it’s influenced every piece I’ve ever written since, and even the way I deal with people in “real life.”

It’s this:

People act according to the way they see themselves, not according to who they really are.

Told you it was a simple idea. At least, it seems so on the surface. In reality, it’s profound, and remembering this can help us understand how people (characters) behave, both on the printed page and off.

For example, suicide is epidemic among young people – especially in Alaska, where I live.  Say a character loses his job, laid off with a bunch of other guys. If my character sees himself as unredeemable, a hopeless failure, that this is just further confirmation that he can’t do anything right, he might consider suicide. Whereas most people would consider being laid off just temporarily bad circumstances and never consider such a drastic response.  It’s that self perception, whether accurate or not, that makes the difference.

A woman who’s been told she’s “loose” or “immoral?” Odds are she’ll act that way, dress that way. If she’s sexually assaulted, she might even think she deserved it. A teenager who’s always been treated like a thug will probably act like one. A man who thinks he’s not very smart will probably never try for a mentally-demanding job – even if he’s actually got an IQ of 130.

Of course, our self-perception isn’t always formed by the opinions of those around us. That jobless, thirty-something loser living at home? He would never date anyone with less than supermodel good looks because inside, for whatever reason, he believes he’s worth it. On the flip side, we’ve all seen brilliant, beautiful people engage in self-destructive behavior (the supermodel in an abusive relationship, the amazingly talented singer who refuses to audition for a musical, and so on) because they don’t think they’re “good enough” in spite of the opinions of those around them.

mr rooney   “I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”

 The funny thing is, we all have our blind spots – those instances in which the way we perceive ourselves doesn’t *quite* sync with the rest of the world. This can make for great character development too. Remember Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? He thought of himself as a man on a mission – a rather righteous one at that; his students thought he was a nutcase. Or take Mr. Darcy, for example. Until the venerable Elizabeth Bennet set him straight, he had no idea what a stuck-up, priggish jerk he really was. One of the best ways I’ve ever seen this pulled off was with the Addams Family movies – Gomez and Morticia actually think it’s everyone else that’s strange, not them.

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“Weirdos.”

So tell me what you think. Have you found this to be true? Do you know anyone with a blindspot like Mr. Rooney? Has there ever been a teacher in your life whose advice stuck with you years later? Let me know in the comments!

Underneath it all

Today’s post is a short and simple snapshot of one of my favorite characters in my novel-in-progress, THE VOLUME OF WATER.

Her name is Nadine.

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If she looks familiar, that’s because this photo is of Norma Jean Baker, aka Marilym Monroe.

Nadine is very much – to my mind – like Norma Jean. At 24, she’s had a rather rough life, and yet she still has a somewhat childlike innocence and beauty in spite of that – at least in the early part of the book, before things get really rough. Nadine is voluptuous, and so people make assumptions about her. Even as a young teenager, people assume she’s promiscuous … a “bad” girl. Ironically. inside she’s a rather hopeless romantic, insecure, and surprisingly smart.

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Marilyn Monroe had a sad childhood too. I didn’t know this until I began researching my book, but the young Norma Jean’s mother was mentally unstable, and sent her to live with foster parents until she was 7 years old. She was then placed in a home for orphans and might have been adopted by several willing families but her mother refused to sign paperwork that would allow it. Then her mother’s best friend took over as Norma Jean’s guardian, and everything seemed great. At least, until that woman’s husband repeatedly sexually assault her. When Norma Jean moved to California to live with her great-aunt, it happened again: one of Olive’s sons attacked her as well.

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There has been a lot of talk lately about “rape culture,” and part of my book deals with rape and its aftereffects. But I wonder if we shouldn’t go deeper and question the assumptions we make about people in the first place – all people. Marilyn Monroe, for example, became famous as a sex symbol (phychologists have questioned whether her hypersexuality, substance abuse and relationship troubles in later years were perhaps a reaction to those early sexual assualts). Very few people remember Marilyn as a student of literature and art appreciation at UCLA, but she was. Underneath it all, Norma Jean was sensitive, intelligent and often painfully shy (when filming “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Marilyn’s co-star Jane Russel sometimes had to escort her from her dressing room because she was overcome with stage fright!).

Like Norma jean, or Marilyn if you prefer, my character Nadine is not who she comes across as. Underneath it all, she’s quite the opposite.

Are you like that? Do you know people who are on the inside completely different from how they appear? What do you think are some good ways that we as a society can teach ourselves to take a better look at the people around us? Please let me know in the comments section!