Friday, September 26, 2014

Satan's Revenge on Authors

You’ve written a novel, agonized over character names—after all you’re going to have to live with these people for many years. You’ve progressed from the draft to rewrite rewrite  rewrite, and then to edit, polish, and proof read. Along the way you’ve made the difficult decisions regarding your title, and cover design. Finally, you have it all in place. You’re done!

NOT! Reading agent and publisher submission guidelines you learn that you must include a 1 to 2 page synopsis—a summary of your novel—an objective outline of the story which includes all the key points of the entire main plot through to the end. Well now, that can’t be too hard.

“Writing a synopsis is like slowly pulling a tooth with pliers.”

“I hate it.”

“The deconstruction of a novel to reduce it to its simplest form is insane.”

“You never feel you’ve done your book justice.”

“Too much information to compress into too little space.”

“It’s the hardest writing we have to do.”

Oh, come on, don’t exaggerate. You authors are so emotional. Numerous sites offer advice on how to write a synopsis. Check them out. It’s easy, you’ll see.

Written in present tense, third person, (in the same style of writing as your book) it’s a summary of your novel—with feeling. You do not have to include every character or every scene or plot point, but you should give a clear idea as to what your book is about, what is at stake for your heroes, and how it all turns out. Yes, you must put the conclusion to your novel in your synopsis. No cliffhangers or teasers.

Armed with all this guidance, you sit down to write the synopsis. One hundred drafts later and you’re crying in your beer, tearing your hair out, reduced to a blubbering piece of mush.

And no, even if you self-publish, you’re not off the hook. Now you need to produce the shorter, and even more difficult to write, synopsis meant for the public—the blurb or book description used to promote the book.

A blurb is not something that sums up your book in a nutshell. It’s meant to create enough excitement and interest to get people to want to READ your story. Think ad. Think movie trailer. Keep it short and simply written, easy to skim. Build in conflict and end with a good hook—a question that will get the reader to click that “ORDER” button.

Here’s the current version of my blurb. I think I’m getting a little closer to a good description, but undoubtedly, there will be more rewrites.

Emily doesn’t believe in heaven, but she has an insane desire to go “up there.” A yearning that’s so strong that she can no longer function in daily life. Even the wonderful Dr. David can’t help her find the answers she needs.

Then a stranger arrives claiming to be her soulmate, claiming to have loved her in other lives. She is inexorably drawn to him even as she runs from him.

To prove what he says is true, Yves takes her to his world. There she meets gods and Powers and people rescued from doomed planets—living the perfect heavenly life. She knows she belongs “up there” with Yves, but all is not as idyllic as it appears. Emily is the only one who sees the danger. Can she leave her family and friends to stay with Yves? Will she be able to save him and his world?

As for the tagline, that catchphrase or slogan to advertise your book, how hard can that be?
Keep it simple, tell a story, be clear, be scenario driven, be creative, be memorable—all good advice from the Internet, but not so easy to put into practice. Movie taglines—In space no one can hear you scream. Alien (1979), Houston, we have a problem. Apollo 13 (1995)—are inspiring, but aren’t always the ticket for a novel.

This is what I’ve come up with so far for my books.

Aliens take over Em's life. Trouble is the guy in charge is a rookie. Of course he messes up.

Jasmine is convinced she's invincible. The visions she experienced as a child told her so.

Abby believes the clickings she hears in the fillings of her teeth are messages from aliens. She's right.

Emily is obsessed with the notion of going “up there.” She arrives to a world in crisis. Saving it and the man she loves is up to her. 

Mali to Mexico and points in between 
I have to tell you a story. Snippets of a life well lived.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Teaching in Bamako

Oh my Lord! What had I gotten myself into? I stood at the front of the room facing fifty-four grade nine girls. Three bodies crammed into each desk meant for two. They stared at me solemnly.

I took a deep breath. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Miss.” The chorus of lilting voices encouraged me, but I was soon to discover that learning English was not high on their list of priorities. Most, sent to the school by some of the wealthier Malian families, were putting in time until husbands were found for them.

Some of the girls lived in Bamako and rode their bikes or walked to school. Out-of-towners boarded in the dorms on the second level of the building.

I rode my mobylette to school and parked it amidst the girls’ bikes under the huge mango trees. At the end of the first morning when I went to retrieve my motorized bike, I found the girls poking at their bicycle seats with sticks.

“Qu’est-ce que vous faites?” I asked.

“Serpents, madame. Il faut toujours faire sortir les serpents.”

I found a sturdy branch on the ground and poked under my bike seat. I wasn’t about to share a ride home with a snake.

The next morning, armed with a few English as a Second Language textbooks that I’d been able to scrounge from the store room, we began language learning in earnest.

Chapter One: Sounds of the City.

“So girls, what are some of the sounds you hear in Bamako?”



“Bicycle bells.”

“Dogs barking.”

I glanced down at the textbook. The lesson referred to machinery, buses, sirens…. However could these young ladies relate to a North American city? I explained as best I could about my city and we did manage to complete the lesson over the next few days, but baffled looks told me I’d lost them.

I turned the page. Chapter Two: The Sahara. I sighed with relief.
The morning of day three of working through that chapter was cold. I had brought a light cotton jacket from Canada and actually had to wear it. The girls, wrapped in what looked like every pagne they owned, shivered and huddled together.

“Mademoiselle, does it get this cold in Canada?”

I checked the thermometer outside the office door. 82F. “Oh, much, much colder.” I drew a rough map on the board to show them where I lived and tried to explain the cold of Alberta winters and the Arctic. As I discussed the Great Canadian North and its inhabitants, I heard snickers and stifled laughter each time I said the word “kayak.”

Finally one of the girls put up her hand. “Miss, that word sounds just like a word in Bambara. A very, very bad word that a lady would never ever use.”

“So girls, let’s see what chapter three is about, shall we?”

Pagne = a rectangle of cloth worn as a skirt with a matching blouse or as a shawl.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Zen Garden

My sister gave me a Zen garden for my desk when I was first appointed principal. It came with a few stones and a rake.

Over the years I added pebbles from the Indian Ocean that I collected when I visited Bali, sand dollars my sister and I found on the beaches in Australia, lovely white rocks from Greece, and a “petrified” peanut—this last a contribution from my granddaughter.

At school, I kept the Zen garden on the corner of my desk next to a box of Kleenex. Both played large roles in my life as a principal—sometimes larger than I would have liked.

The Kleenex mopped up many tears, mostly from students, but sometimes from staff too, including myself. Students came in with runny noses and asked if they could “borrow” a Kleenex. I always said, “No, I don’t want it back when you’re done.” This was followed by a slight pause and then, “Ew, gross!”  

The Zen garden proved therapeutic as my sister had predicted. Students and teachers played with the rake and sand as they unburdened, explained, sought moral support, feedback for their ideas, or whatever else needed to be discussed.

Playing with the garden had a calming effect on children and adults alike, but I noticed a significant difference in how they used the garden.

Teachers picked up the rake and carefully raked around the stones, smoothing the sand and setting the rake back in its original position. Students removed the rake, the rocks, and the sand dollars placing them on the desk. They raked the sand, used both their fingers and the rake to smooth the sand, make patterns of squiggles or ripples, and then replaced everything they had taken out in new arrangements.

The differences in behavior raised serious questions in my mind. What do we lose over the years as we grow from child to adult? What comportment do we adhere to as adults and what dictates the behaviors we follow, behaviors that seem so restricting, if the Zen garden “play” is a valid indicator?

Think about what a child hears over the years. “Don’t do that.” “What will people think?” “Don’t be silly.” “Be good.” “Behave!” “Be good.” “Behave.”

When my son was very young, I asked him how he would add up the numbers one plus two plus three all the way to one hundred. He thought for a moment and then said, “Well one plus ninety-nine equals one hundred and 2 plus ninety-eight equals one hundred….” I don’t remember if he got the total or not, but he certainly had the concept.

Years later when he was in grade ten he came home and said. “Mom, remember when I was little and you asked me how to add one to one hundred? What did I answer?” I told him and asked him why he wanted to know. He said that the math teacher had posed the question and no one in the class could answer. “That’s what school does to us. It takes away our creative thinking.”

Was my son right? Do our education system and societal strictures change us irrevocably as we grow and mature? Assuming the answer is yes, what do we lose, both as individuals and as a society when creativity is crushed?

I watch my four-year-old granddaughter, wearing a blanket secured with a clip—superhero to the rescue. I listen to her retell, in her own inimitable way, the stories I’ve read to her.  I assist her building with Lego, and play customer to her shopkeeper. I dance with her, sing with her, splash water with her…. I admire her clever original thinking and ingenious activity. She’s uninhibited by society’s norms and I envy her.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Hero Confronts the Author

“Okay, Mrs. Jones, here’s the thing,” Yves said. “You put me in your books for the magic solutions I could bring to Earth, right?”

“Exactly,” I replied. “We need you down here to stop wars, get rid of the guns, and …, well, I don’t really need to explain. You can see for yourself that Earth needs a whole lot of fixing.”

“No question. But with so much to do, why did you pick me? Why not one of the more experienced Powers? I’m a rookie on my first assignment. I’m bound to mess up.”

I had to chuckle. Of course he’d mess up. In fact he’d mess up for four whole novels before he got it right. I didn’t tell him that of course. Wouldn’t do for him to know about his future. “Trust me. You’re the one for this job.”

Yves stomped a foot. The most emotion I’d seen from him so far. So he could get mad. Good. He’d need emotions, a whole lot of them, to do the job well. In fact all of those supreme beings up there needed to loosen up or what would the universe come to?

“How can you say that?” His voice rose to a sort of adolescent squeak. “Look at the mess I’ve made of things already. I’ve sent Em out on dangerous missions and haven’t even been able to communicate with her. I can’t let her know she won’t be hurt no matter what happens. How am I supposed to live with her questions and her fears knowing I’m the cause? Look at her!” His voice rose again. “She’s fighting. Hand to hand combat. Blood all over the place.” He blinked and Em’s gi pants and t-shirt glowed spotlessly white in the mud and blood and mire of the battle.

I rubbed my hands together. Oh, this was good. Really good. Tension on every page just like the experts said. “Don’t worry,” I said. “It will all work out okay.”

Yves breathed a sigh of relief.

“Or not,” I said.

Yes, writing is fun. A lot of work too, but when you have multidimensional characters, a complex plot line, the realities of the world mixed with a bit of magic…. Well, what more could an author ask for?