Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tiny 9/11 stories

Everybody has 9/11 stories. With the coming of the anniversary, I have been thinking a lot about mine. They are tiny, tiny snapshots of what happened that day. Here are a few of the stories I have, and the stories I heard from others.

Riding the train across the bridge into Manhattan that morning, we could see from the window that both towers were on fire and shaking. A man seated in front of me said, "Those towers will never fall. I'm an engineer, I know."

The office secretaries at my son's school started going through the emergency contact cards for every kid, looking to see if any parents worked in the trade center. Some did. One died.

I had just recommended my dentist to a friend. His offices had picture windows looking over NY Harbor, with a clear view of the tower. As she sat in the chair, she saw a plane hit a tower and later saw one collapse. They terminated the appointment. As she rode home, she recalled, the streets were completely deserted. She rode her bike through the middle of a normally busy avenue. It reminded her of something that happened in Toronto, where she spent her childhood. The Queen Mother was due for a visit and streets had been cleared of traffic, and she and her brother rode their bikes ahead of the royal entourage, cops whistling at them to stop, but they just kept going.

An elderly neighbor was having her home renovated. The painters abruptly departed that morning, leaving drop cloths and supplies all around. She slipped, fell, broke a hip, went into a nursing home and never came back.

I asked my son, who was 8 at the time, what he remembers from that day. He said he remembers that one of the dads who came home from work early took all the kids to the park to play football.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cordula Volkening, in memoriam

A dear friend passed away a week ago.

She was an artist, a mother and a free spirit.

She leaves two children, ages 13 and 16.

The brain cancer that killed her unleashed an incredible outpouring of creativity. She painted dozens of beautiful pictures, three of which are now hanging in my living room, in the year and a half betweeen her diagnosis and her death. One of her art shows was called "In my wild brave heart," a quote from a Rilke poem.

Her heart was indeed wild and brave. She lived her life with tremendous passion and she faced her death with enormous dignity. I hope when my time comes I can be that brave and true.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Over the weekend, my younger son's face swelled up on one side. He looked the way kids used to look when they got the mumps, before there was a vaccine.

He was in so much pain he was crying. We called the dentist, who put him on an antibiotic. Within two hours, the swelling and pain were mostly gone.

I don't know how anybody ever survived before modern medicine.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The College Tour

This week I am on a college tour for my son, a junior in high school.

Since I never went on a college tour, I'm kind of excited about it. When I went to college, I applied to one school, got in, and never visited until I showed up to move into my dorm. It worked out just fine.

So it could be fun to see different campuses and see how things have changed.

On the other hand, it's a drag. It's expensive. It's a time-sucker. And you can bet my 11-year-old will not really have a good time, but we had to drag him along, poor thing.

A bunch of parents have told me sometimes you get to a college and your kid won't even get out of the car because he can tell just by sitting in the parking lot that he doesn't want to go there.

I hope that doesn't happen to us.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How to write and sell a book

On average now once a week someone asks me advice about writing a book, finding an agent or selling a book. This week so far three people have asked me for advice.

If as many people would buy my book, as ask me for advice on writing a book, I'd be selling a lot of copies. Of course that is one of the problems with this world - many people want to write books, but many people do not want to read books. Tens of thousands of new books are published each year and many of them are on the remainder pile within a couple of months.

But I'm not here to soapbox about that. I'm here to say what it is I tell people who ask me for advice. This way, next time I am asked, I can simply send a link to this blog post.

So - here are the answers to the questions I am usually asked:

Q: How do you find time to write books with a job and two kids?
A: Some people keep journals, some people write every day. I don't. I write in spurts. For my first book, I took a month off from work because I had a lot of compensation time built up, and I wrote about half the book in that time, going back through notes I had taken on events and elaborating on those notes for the book.

For my last book, I spent a few weekends - 12-hour days - in a quiet office with no distractions, without my family, without the Internet, and then when my younger son was away at camp, I worked every night for two weeks, about six hours nonstop at each sitting. I can write thousands of words this way, in one sitting. A 250-page book is about 100,000 words, so it adds up fast.

If I have a thought or a nugget that could be the seed for a passage or a chapter, but I don't have time to spin it out at that moment, I jot it down fast and email it to myself. I create a folder in my email to save those notes so I can find them later. You also need an outline, at least for nonfiction. The outline keeps you going, and that way you can write parts of chapters out of order if you're stuck.

I did not write any of my books before I had a contract and an advance from a publisher. A deadline and money are powerful motivators. Usually you get some of the money when you sign the contract and the rest when you hand in the manuscript.

Q: How do you find an agent? Who is your agent?
A: Most authors who are not famous, thank their agents in writing, in their books, in a note in front of the book, or in acknowledgements in back of the book. Find books like the book you want to write, and figure out who agented them. You can find my agent in the acknowledgements of all my books.

If the author of a book you like did not thank the agent in the book, you can research the names of agents who sold books in recent years on Publisher's Lunch/Publisher's Deluxe. You have to pay $20 a month to subscribe to this Web site but you can cancel any time, and it's worth it. Just reading its daily emailed newsletter will tell you a lot about what types of books are selling, who's selling them and which publishers are buying them, and how much they're paying. There is an archive so you can research past deals. You'll also get a sense through this newsletter of what publishers take books without agents. There aren't too many, but there are a few.

There is no point in querying an agent who does not sell the type of book you are writing.

A very useful book is "Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents."

I have not, and would not, pay an agent to read a manuscript. Agents take a fee, usually 15 percent, of the advance, after the book idea is sold.

Q: What is the process for selling a book?
A: I don't know anything about fiction. For nonfiction, here's how it has worked for me.

I did not write any of my three books before selling them. I wrote a proposal and a sample chapter, but not the entire book, and I got contracts on the basis of my proposals. An agent uses the proposal to sell the concept. After I had a contract, then I wrote the book. To me, it seemed like a waste of time to write a book if I wasn't sure I could sell it. In fact, the one time that I wrote half of a book before I had a contract, the agent was not able to sell it, and I felt very sad afterwards that I had wasted months of effort for nothing.

Here's what's in a proposal: An anecdotal lead that flows into a summary and description of what the book is about, as a sort of advertisement for the book, its concept and content; who you are and why you are the best person to write the book; who will buy the book and how it can be marketed; a list of other books that are like your book, to show that books like this will sell, but at the same time, an explanation of why your book is slightly different from all these other books, and maybe better; an outline, which includes a very brief description of each chapter; a sample chapter - not necessarily the first chapter, but the best chapter; and an author bio. Length: 15 pages, maybe another 15 for the chapter. If you have published other things, include some clips or reviews.

To query an agent, write a one-page letter that summarizes the proposal: Describe the book, describe yourself, explain why you are qualified to write this book, explain who will buy this book and why you think it could be a hit. Ask for permission to send the proposal.

You should do research on 20 to 50 books that are like your book. Use Amazon to query subjects that are like your subject. Go to a big bookstore and look at all of the books on the shelves where you imagine your book would be. Read as many of them as you can. Immerse yourself in the genre; educate yourself. Then figure out five or 10 that are most like your book, and research who agented them, who published them. Now you're ready to write your proposal, find your agent and proceed on your way.

Q: What about self-publishing?
A: Unless you are writing a family memoir just for your own family, or a book of poems and recipes just for yourself and your immediate family, I don't see the point of self-publishing. To me it is pure vanity. If no agent will take your book, or if an agent will take it but no publisher will, maybe it's time to start with a new subject. Many famous writers experienced multiple rejections before hitting on a winner.

But maybe you think you can sell your book on your own. Maybe you have a built-in client base because of your job or profession. Maybe it's a niche subject on a disease or a neighborhood, but you know there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people whom you can find through some organization or store, who will buy the book. Maybe you want to go around the country with boxes selling books and making change for $20 bills. Bless you! There is a book called "Self-Publishing For Dummies," and that will tell you everything you need to know.

In my experience, writing a book is easy compared to selling it. But that's a whole nother topic of conversation that I don't want to get into here. Thanks for listening to all of this, and good luck.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The dark side of 472 Facebook friends

I first joined Facebook a couple of years ago basically to spy on my teenager. He refused to friend me, and told me "Facebook is for teenagers."

I got over it, and decided to find my own friends. Colleagues from around the world, neighbors, cousins, high school classmates. It was really fun for awhile and I became quite addicted.

But lately Facebook has lost its charm. A friend at work said it jumped the shark when everyone started posting "25 Things About Me" notes. Some of those 25 things were things I didn't want to know about some of those people.

Then I tried to get into Twitter. But most of it is so banal. At least Facebook postings were clever, witty, word plays (often, anyway). Twitter is what people are doing, what they heard, videos and blog postings and ads they want me to see. I don't care about that; I want to be entertained. But no matter how I edited my Twitter list, it never seemed that entertaining.

And somehow as I followed Facebook through two generations of changes in the homepage, and kept adding more friends, I lost track of lots of them. No matter how I edited my status feed, it never seemed to have what I wanted in it.

The boundaries melted, too many random people, too many people whose names pop up and I'm like, HUH? Who is that? Too many messages to answer.

So now I'm giving up, at least for awhile. I'm taking a leave of absence from Facebook.

And maybe it'll free up so much time I'll actually get the damn taxes done.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Zen and the art of motherhood maintenance

I was relating a story to some colleagues the other day in which one of my children told me a convoluted tale involving some of his fellow students, a teacher and a controversy over homework. It's so convoluted that it would be pointless to share the details here.

My point in bringing it up is that my reaction to this incident was to simply state my basic values and rules, and then let it go. I personally would rather have a child get a zero on an assignment than stay up all night completing it, end up in tears because of it, copy the assignment from someone else, lie about it, have a nervous breakdown over it, or any other number of possible outcomes besides completing it in a reasonable period of time, with a reasonable amount of effort.

Basically, if you screw up somehow in doing the work, then you gotta live with the consequences. And if you did your best but you still fall short, well, at least you did your best.

In my mind, though, the most important thing is: To thine own self be true.

Did you behave honorably? If you did, then that's good enough for me.

My colleagues labeled this approach 'zen mothering' and maybe it is.

I don't particularly consider myself a zen person. I am quite neurotic and can get really worked up about stupid things.

But I also know that for me personally, the key to a good night's sleep is knowing that I did what I could, given available resources, to get a job done, and that I endeavored to avoid harming anyone else.

If that's zen, then OK, I guess I am zen.

Maybe my next book should be 'Zen and the Art of Motherhood Maintenance.'