Ashamed of my alma mater

September 29, 2009 In The News, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (0) 200

Riot Police in Oakland

This past Thursday and Friday, armed riot police invaded the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus.  Ostensibly defending the visiting G-20 delegates meeting several miles away, these police in no way confined themselves to breaking up disruptions or protests.  They attacked and arrested students who were making casual use of campus facilities including the student union and the residence halls.  They trapped students between locked doors and police barricades and gassed or attacked them when they “refused to disperse.”  They arrested student journalists and legal observers.  They even invaded student housing, going to far as to arrest students for “refusal to disperse” within their own dorm rooms.

How has the University responded?  With outrage at the treatment of students making typical use of University and public property?  With warnings about overreaching police power and questions about closing an entire city to its residents because of a handful of visiting foreign nationals?  Not exactly.

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Rejection Letters / Backpacking the Catskills

September 23, 2009 Personal, Travels Comments (6) 917

Chuck at the Guide to Literary Agents blog reposted an article from author Debra Darvick (phew, that’s a lot of attribution), Ten Hidden Gifts of Rejection Letters.  Not a bit too soon.  For the past week or so rejection letters are all the mail I seem to receive.  No worries though.  I figure rejection happens quickly, but an offer will take a while.

Marshmallows

Thought I’d share a story and a few photos from my Labor Day weekend backpacking trip to the Catskill Mountains.  My friend Liz and I hauled our asses over the Burroughs Range Trail (AKA the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide or WCS Trail) on Saturday, camped below the summit of Terrace Mountain, and returned on the Phoenicia-East Branch Trail on Sunday.

First things first.  The folks at the NY/NJ Trail Conference who authored our guide maps have a talent for understatement.  For those of you who may also be using these maps, be advised that “steep” in many cases means “near vertical,” and “challenging” means “soul crushing.”

That is not a rock wall behind her.  That is in fact the trail.

That is not a rock wall behind her. That is in fact the trail.

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The best critique I ever received

September 18, 2009 Writing Comments (0) 175

Recent posts by Kristin Nelson and Josh Olson (via Janet Reid) got me thinking about this.

At age 15 my writing abilities were far above those of my peers.  Any essay I turned in, no matter how vapid, met universal praise.  Many teachers assured me that this would one day be my career.  It was very encouraging, but as a result I got lazy.  I rarely did assigned reading, and when it came time for the book report I just churned out some flowery praise and waited for my A.  No one ever seemed to notice that the pretty words said essentially nothing.

I participated in John Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (“CTY”) program four years in a row.  It was one of the most important experiences of my life, socially much more than academically.  In fact the social aspect of the program is probably why, when we were assigned a report on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” I didn’t bother reading the book.  I think I spent the assigned homework time writing some fiction of my own instead.

I turned in the usual tripe, one page front and back, and expected the usual praise.  Instead, scrawled in red pen across the top of the page, I got this:

“Chris:

This paper would have been better used if you’d folded it into a paper airplane and thrown it out the window.”

It was Dr. Phil Boshoff who gave me that review.  I was shocked at first, but even at that age I think I appreciated it.  He didn’t coddle me because I was smart for my age.  He saw that I hadn’t done the work, he knew I was capable of more, and he called me on it.  In no unclear terms.

I kept that sheet for a while, but over the years I think it got lost.  I wish I still had it.  I would frame it and hang it over my writing desk.

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Writing techniques: revealing character

September 17, 2009 Writing Comments (0) 170

The new Flaming Lips album Embryonic, is streaming in its entirety over on Colbert Nation.  I’ve been listening to it all day at work.  This is a good day.

I’m currently “reading” Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  I use the quotes because I am experiencing the novel on audiobook, as I do most of the novels I read.  I walk half an hour each direction to and from work every day and usually walk for forty-five minutes on my lunch break, and it’s damned difficult (not to mention unsafe) to thumb a paperback while walking the busy streets of Center City Philadelphia.  But it’s annoying to say “I’m listening to a book” and get odd looks from people, so I say “reading.”  Anyway, I digress.

In this morning’s passage there was a line where one of the main characters, John Percival Hackworth, experiences relief “like a puff of opium smoke.”  Or something very much like that – forgive me, it’s hard to look up quotes on an iPod.  It called to my attention a little-discussed writing technique.

In writing classes you’re generally taught that there are three ways to reveal character to your reader.  How the narrator describes the character, how other characters perceive the character, and how the character perceives herself.  There is another way, tied in with point of view, and that is how that character perceives her world.

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How not to write query letters

September 16, 2009 Writing Comments (0) 222

More than 20 literary agents have been sent queries for Volve this week, the first time in the book’s long life that I’ve made this kind of effort toward publication.  I finished the third rewrite a couple of weeks ago, and I have a good feeling about this version.  The rewrite tightened up the narrative considerably, and re framed the opening chapters to engage the reader faster, introduce the main characters and their conflicts, and get the plot moving.

One thing I discovered during this query process is that I prefer paper query letters.  If  you mess something up, you can open the envelope and fix it.  Nothing is final until the package is in the mail.  E-mail queries are final as soon as you click “send,” and that can sometimes lead to trouble.

Just for fun, let’s look at some of the screw-ups I made in my e-mail queries.  Sigh.

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