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?

Probably just a passing fad.

In 1964, the Alaskan king crab industry was just taking off. Monsters like this guy were not rare. Working the cannery line was miserable, and made for a long, long day. But the industry brought work to Alaska’s remote coastal towns. In the early days, catches of up to 3,000 king crabs a day were not uncommon, with individual crabs weight 8-10 pounds each.

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Somebody pass the garlic butter.

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!

How to query like Bilbo Bagginses

So my last post was all about finding the courage to send out query letters to literary agents for my novel, MOTHER MONA. I finally found a little bit between the couch cushions, and so I actually went for it. (scream)

You know those action movies where there’s a skinny little guy who takes on the world…

115186601_348382c“I’m going on an adventure.”

… and then he proves himself in battle and thinks he’s done, but whoa, no – he’s just getting started? And as the movie progresses, there are always bigger hills to climb and scarier monsters to battle? Kind of like, it never ends and the poor little guy is on his knees screaming, “DEAR LORD HOW MUCH MORE CAN I TAKE?”

Yeah. Querying is a lot like that. I’ll show you how. There are specific steps involved.

1. First, you find the agents you adore: the ones which your extensive research has showngandalf are compatible with your kind of writing, are open to queries, and have compassionate-looking avatars on Twitter and/or share your bad eating habits. You compose an email to each one containing your query letter. You personalize each one (Dear Agent is frowned upon but I think Hey You Sweet Thang is okay in some circles), and go to each agent’s website and review their submission guidelines (even though you’ve already cut and pasted them onto your handy-dandy AGENTS spreadsheet on Excel). You say a quick prayer, cross yourself, stop and re-read your email for typos, cross yourself again, stop clenching your fists and shake your hands until you can feel your fingers again, remember to breathe, eat a chocolate chip for luck, and hit “send.”

2. Immediately after hitting “send,” go to your inbox. Did they reply yet? If so, see the steps below. If not, check your “sent” folder. Is it there? If not, check your internet connection. Wonder if you remembered to pay your internet bill, and then realize … of course you did, you have that agent’s profile up on Twitter right there. If it is there in your “sent” folder, re-check the email address. Oh bless us and splash us, is that the right email address? Pull up the submission guidelines on their website again. Whew. Wait … did you remember to paste the appropriate agent’s name into the salutation? OH GOD!!! Wait, okay you’re good. Remind yourself that some agents can get as many as 100 queries or more every day. Give them at least a couple hours to read yours.

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3. This is where you’ll need to have an iPhone, because it is important to check your inbox regularly, and you won’t want to be tied to a landline. If your teenager spies your phone on the kitchen counter next to you while you’re doing dishes after dinner and tries to stealthily grab it to check her tumbler blog, or her own email account, or call 911 or something equally not-nearly-as-important-as-your-incoming-agent-email, just yell “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY PHONE!” – but make sure you’ve already dried and put away the sharp knives first because they might jump back a few feet. That’s okay – keeps them on their toes. Nothing like a little healthy fear of the mom. =)

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4. Soon, In a day or two, Eventually, Finally, your iPhone will make that wonderful little “You’ve Got Mail” sound as you’re tucking your toddler into bed, and the Old Lady will go straight from swallowing-the-bird-to-catch-the-spider to well-she-should’ve-stayed-a-vegetarian-anyway-so-goodnight, and you will bang your head on the top bunk in your haste (but what’s a little blood for the sake of art?) and you will check your inbox and find a response from one of the agents you queried.

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5. Now, agents can respond to queries with anything from “My eyes are bleeding, don’t ever email me again!” to “This is wonderful, you are the next Emerson, when can we do lunch?” The responses generally fall into one of four categories: form rejection; personalized rejection; hmm, how about you send me a bit of your manuscript (partial request); and dang girl – send me the whole darn thing right away! (in the writer biz that’s called a “full”). If you get a good old-fashioned form rejection, be proud: you’re in good company. I hear CS Lewis was rejected like 7 million times for Narnia. Still, it hurts. Vodka helps. So does chocolate. Cry a little. Cross that agent’s name off your spreadsheet (or at least change their name to an unflattering shade of medium grey, so there) and tell yourself they really aren’t as awesome as you always thought they were. Eat another bite of chocolate and decide that yeah, they are, but that’s okay.

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6. If you’re really super lucky, you’ll get a personalized rejection. This is awesome because then you can brag about it to all your writerly friends. The personalized rejection means a Real Life Agent thinks you don’t Totally Suck Completely, and you’re worthy of taking the time to convey a smidge of hope to. Understand that it is a wee smidge, because after all, it’s still a rejection. Print it out nevertheless. Put it in a folder so you can frame it later. Have some more vodka. Resume iPhone vigil, but stay away from heavy wood furniture.

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One semi-scary monster down …

7. Now, one day you might check your inbox at 5:35 in the morning (because agents do not sleep or eat but subsist off words alone) and find – cue the Hallelujah Chorus – a note from an agent requesting a partial or full manuscript from you. When you’re done screaming (why should the rest of your family sleep in anyway? You’ve been meaning to get them on a schedule), eat a bite of celebratory chocolate. You just killed the dragon. You’re IN THERE, buddy. A Real Live Agent likes you. Do the happy dance, pour yourself a cuppa coffee and send that baby right on over. Then, take a deep breath – because you’re gonna need it – and proceed to the next step.

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8. Yeah. Here’s where that bigger hill happens where Bilbo has to kill another dragon (or similar scary creature). One that makes the first one look like a cute fluffy bunny.

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Because now, the stakes are amped up, and agents can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to read manuscripts. Go ahead and add a little Baileys to that coffee. I’ll wait.

And wait. And wait.

9. It only gets better, and scarier, from here. Assuming you’re one of the 3-4% of requested manuscripts agents fall in love with (and requests only constitute a fraction of a percent of the amount of queries they receive), and the agent calls you and you both decide you’re a perfect fit for each other, and you actually become an AGENTED WRITER, guess what? The whole thing just starts all over again (oh, and did I mention revisions yet? Heh heh heh. Have a Snickers bar). Your agent turns around and tries to sell your manuscript to publishers … wait for it … by writing a pitch letter very similar to the query letter you wrote them.

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I’m told being “on sub” – that excruciating time when your agent is out there trying to sell your book – is even more frightening than querying. I wouldn’t know (yet!), but I believe it. To be so, so close to the very tip of the mountain, only to fall back down again if a publisher rejects your book, has gotta really hurt. And, you’re no longer in control – it’s all up to that super awesome agent of yours.

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  It is in Men agents that we must place our hope.

Through all this though, I have discovered a pretty good way to deal with the pain and fear of querying a novel. You’ll never guess what. Okay you guessed it. By writing another book.

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More on that in my next post. 😉

Making a good Mother

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Yeah, no. Not that kind.

As a matter of fact, I am sitting at my desk NOT doing laundry, not baking banana bread, listening to my kids argue over which episode of Go Diego Go to watch … but hey, it’s a snow day. Nevertheless I am fully appreciating the irony here. Feel free to take part.

The Mother I am referring to, actually, is the novel I am working on, “Mother Mona.” Here’s the gist of it, from the back of my imaginary best-selling book:

Mona, a 49-year-old divorced CPA from Newport Beach, was never a contender for Mother of the Year. However, her daughter Beth needs her now. Beth’s pregnancy has gone wrong, and Mona’s son-in-law Sasha asks her to come help her daughter recover after childbirth almost kills her. Mona travels to the remote Alaskan island where Beth and her family live – without electricity, in-floor heating or running water.

 Mona is completely out of her element in the remote Alaskan cabin. There’s a humungous spider named Pip living in the outhouse. After years of living on takeout and salads, her daughter’s wood burning cook stove is a complete mystery to her. She refuses to feed slimy slugs to the ducks that happen to despise her. One more meal of canned salmon and she’s going to cry. Her daughter is distant, her son-in-law is absent, and her quirky, homeschooled grandchildren think she’s nuts. Her only friends are a small group of Russian nuns that live on a nearby island and a  64-year-old Alutiiq hermit who thinks like a pirate.

The thing is, writing a novel is a lot like being pregnant for the first time. You obsess over every little detail. You stand in line at the grocery store and jot different names on scratch paper under “milk, bread, tomatoes.” You read every writerly book, magazine article and online blog you can find, and hope like heck that you’re doing it all right. It’s all you can talk about – even as you watch the eyes of friends and acquaintances gloss over like dead salmon on a hot beach. And worse, the writing muse will kick you in the gut without warning, waking you up at night and making you gasp out loud in public. Your concerned husband will ask if you’re OK, and you’ll reply, “Ouch! I just figured out what was wrong with chapter 3!”

Sadly, no one feels the urge to pamper writers like a woman in that “delicate condition,” although I would maintain that being in the midst of writing a difficult scene is a pretty delicate condition to be in. No one offers to rub your feet or cook you dinner. No one urges you to take it easy “for the sake of the novel” or eat because you’re “thinking for two now.”

So, that being the case, I suppose I’d better get a load of laundry going and feed the kids something healthy for lunch. Like any good mother would. Just as soon as I finish these last few pages.