Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Santa Put "What" In Your Stocking?

Bad kids get lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings, right?

And good kids get…well, for good kids the sky's the limit. Or so good kids desperately hope.

So before December 25th arrives, you do a short review, just a brief precautionary survey, to check on how you stack up in the all-important good kid-bad kid sweepstakes.

Let's see, during the past twelve months you weren't a serial killer, not even a sort-of-nice-one, like Dexter. Check.

You didn't buy up companies, strip them of their valuable assets and sell off the rest, sending hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs to India or the Philippines or some such place and forcing an equal number of workers onto the unemployment line. Check.

You didn't mistreat helpless animals…kick the old, frail, pregnant or incapacitated to the curb to reach that empty cab first…spread vicious rumors…pick pockets…or set fires to collect insurance money. Check…check…check…check…and double check.

So all things considered, you were a pretty good kid. Which means…at least you hope it means…Santa will fill your Christmas stocking with some really nice goodies.

Then Christmas comes, and the long-awaited moment when you can dip into that stocking and tally up your loot is finally here.

Okay, not a single iPad, iPod, iPhone or Mac-anything in sight. But there is a basic laptop.Your first one ever. So far, so good. There are also gift cards. No question about it, you can always use those. And beautiful flowering plants as well as boxes of rich Italian pastry and creamy chocolate candy.

All in all, not a bad haul, and you go to sleep that night with a smile on your face and a twinge in your gut (when will you learn that one thick slice of tiramisu is more than enough, and two thick slices will come back to bite you every time?)

Then Christmas is finally over, and as you prepare to pack away the Yule decorations, you suddenly realize the most important thing Santa put in your stocking—not this year's stocking, but last year's edition. It's a gift you couldn't see back then, a gift you can only recognize in hindsight, and it's the most valuable gift of all.


365 days of it. 

A full year of pretty good health, enough money to pay your bills, and even a dream or two that finally came true.

So even if that billion-dollar bank balance remains forever elusive and the castle in Spain, the Rolls Royce and the eat-all-you-want-and-never-gain-an-ounce diet never materialize, you still (in the most literal sense imaginable) received the gift of a lifetime.

It's what you hope is in your stocking again this Christmas, the same gift you'd like for everyone else as well—another year of life, love, laughter, good health, and dreams fulfilled.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What's Past Is Prologue

     As with so much else he did, Shakespeare had it right when he penned that pithy phrase for “The Tempest.”

     The past can indeed set the stage (or provide the prologue) for the present and hence the future.

     The same applies to prologues in books.  They’re scene setters that explain what brought the protagonist to his or her current predicament. 

     Of course, a lot of readers actively dislike book prologues.  They consider them unnecessary and just want to jump into the action of the main plot itself while the writer judiciously sifts in any important bits of backstory at the appropriate time.

     It’s a valid point of view, and after writing the prologue to “Finding You Again,” I did try a prologue-less beginning.  But somehow it didn’t feel quite right to me, and since the prologue is just 293 words and (in my opinion, at least) sort of amusing, I decided to stay with it. 

     So here it is: the short prologue (the past) that provides the background for what sends Maggie Demarco, the heroine, on her journey (the present) into the future:


At one-thirty on a beautiful afternoon in early June, Maggie Demarco stood in the small anteroom at the rear of St. Athanasius Church, wearing a magnificent white gown and waiting for the moment when her father would walk her down the aisle and deliver her for all time into the tender arms of her groom, the love of her life.

At one forty-four, Maggie was still waiting.

At one fifty-nine, the entire assembled wedding party finally realized Maggie was still waiting. And so were they.

At two-twelve... That’s right. Still waiting.

At two-sixteen, calls, e-mails and instant messages began going out to the groom to alert him that he was, umm, just a wee bit late to his own wedding.

At two-twenty-seven, Maggie’s father, the wee-bit-late-groom’s father, the best man, and the ten groomsmen all set out in search of the love of Maggie Demarco’s life.

At two-forty-eight, it finally became evident that the groom hadn’t been in a horrible auto accident on his way to church. Nor had he suffered a near-fatal heart attack, been snatched by kidnappers, or developed a sudden case of amnesia. He had simply turned tail and left town for parts unknown without bothering to inform his bride that he’d experienced a last-minute change of heart about their happily-ever-after.

At three-o-five, belatedly admitting to herself that her perfect wedding was toast, and so was she, Maggie Demarco ripped the tiara veil off her head and ran from the church. Caught between cathartic tears and even more cathartic anger, she vowed, so help her God, that she would never marry anyone—no way, no how—and if she ever found her former beloved fiancĂ©, she would whack the lily-livered louse senseless with what was left of her five-hundred-dollar bouquet.

To Blurb Is Human

        All right, I admit it.  I’m not sure whether blurbing (i.e.: devising a tantalizing thumbnail sketch of a book’s storyline) is human or not.  But since as far as anybody knows, no other life form on earth does it, I suppose it must be. 

The one thing I am sure of with complete certainty is that it’s a necessary and valuable part of putting out a book.  Which meant it had to be done for my novel, “Finding You Again.” 

So I dutifully set about doing it.

Ask many writers and they will probably tell you that in terms of instilling dread, writing a blurb is second only to writing query letters to agents and editors or putting together a 5-page synopsis that will adequately describe your 350-page book.

But after many less-than-glowing attempts, I finally managed to produce a blurb that, with only a few minor changes, won the approval of the Wild Rose Press Blurb Committee.  Yes, blurbs are so vital that TWRP really has a Blurb Committee.

And here is the blurb the committee members decided will be featured both on the book itself and in all promotional materials:

“Maggie Demarco thought she’d have the perfect wedding…until the groom backed out without even saying goodbye. So she packs a bag and flees to the town where she grew up to heal and prepare for the rest of her life.
Eric Holt is surprised when he learns that Maggie’s back in town. He’s never forgotten the hours he spent in high school introducing her to the joys of sex. Of course, he’s also never forgotten the pain of her rejection. But he’s still willing to help her recapture the sexual mojo she lost waiting for her AWOL groom, and he proposes a no-strings-attached affair to prove how desirable she still is.
Neither expect the unintended consequences, when old hurts resurface, new problems arise, and simple sex threatens to turn into the craziest complication of all: love.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Dreams

          Christmas is a time for dreaming.
Clement Moore’s innocent 19th-century children dreamt of sugar plums.  Today’s modern kids, being more savvy and perhaps more acquisitive, have upped the financial stakes by thumbing through their hefty Toys R Us holiday catalogs and dreaming of three-hundred-dollar gaming systems or dollhouses more expensively furnished than the homes where many of us live.
          Adults, too, may harbor wonderful dreams. Perhaps an iPad2 or a new car or a trip to the Bahamas to ward off the invasive cold of a Christmas spent in snowy Wisconsin or blustery New England. Or, considering the fragile state of the economy, maybe the best dream imaginable would simply be a safe job with salary enough to pay off the mortgage, put food on the dinner table, ensure that the kids have a good education, and provide the kind of health care that won’t impoverish the family.
          I live in New York City, in a part of Manhattan awash in hospitals. New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center is here. The Hospital for Special Surgery is here…and Rockefeller University…and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the world-famous cancer center. So many medical institutions, in fact, that the area has often been whimsically called Bedpan Alley—an obvious tip of the hat to Tin Pan Alley, the streets on the West Side of Manhattan where music publishing companies flourished during the early decades of the twentieth century. 
          The composers and lyricists who walked those streets dealt with musical dreams and ultimately produced the Great American Songbook. The dreams in Bedpan Alley are likely of a far different sort and sometimes infinitely harder to achieve. At times, as you go from place to place, you see clear evidence of what those dreams might be. 
On a drizzly autumn afternoon, you might see two women pushing a child in a wheeled hospital bed through the streets to a nearby Ronald McDonald House.  On a sunny Sunday morning, there might be another child sitting a few pews ahead of you in church with a scarf wrapped around her head in the heat of summer.  Only when you see her being put in a wheelchair at the end of the service do you understand the reason for that scarf.
And you try to figure out why—why is it some people and not others?—but you know you never can. So, instead, you feel lucky that it isn’t you (at least not yet) and you feel guilty that it isn’t you (at least not yet), and you do the only thing you can, as meager as it seems. You dream another story for them, the best one you can find: that they’re cured quickly, painlessly and permanently and live to die gently in their beds surrounded by their loving families at the age of a hundred and ten. 
It’s the same dream you’re sure they’re dreaming for themselves, the same dream that the women pushing that hospital bed through the rainy streets and the man maneuvering that wheelchair out of church are dreaming.
Several weeks ago, the assistant to the pastor of that church bid her coworkers good night at the end of the day, left to go home…and disappeared. She still hasn’t been seen or heard from.
          If the police and private investigators working on the case haven’t yet been able to solve it, you know there’s nothing you can do. But whenever you think of her, which is often, you use the only feeble skill you have: you push that awful shivery feeling aside and dream her home again, giving her and her family the happily-ever-after they need and deserve. 
          You do it because you’re human and can feel the pain, even if you 
haven’t personally experienced it. You do it because, as John Donne so 
beautifully expressed it: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a 
piece of the continent, a part of the main.” 
But you do it just as much because you’re a writer, or at least fancy that you are, though others may sometimes disagree. And that’s one of the things writers do best. They dream. For better or worse (and sometimes all those painful rejections, complicated revisions and less-than-glowing reviews make it seem like far, far worse), dreaming is in our blood, an indispensable part of who we are. We take bits and pieces from life and from imagination and meld them together until we dream into existence on the page or the computer screen things that don’t exist, things that could be or should be or might someday be if fate is kind, Christmas dreams for both ourselves and those who may not have many of their own.
Of course, sometimes in Bedpan Alley you might also witness one of those dreams coming true. Passing the entrance to a hospital, you might see a woman being helped from a wheelchair into a waiting taxi. She’s accompanied by smiling teenagers and an older man, and just before the man enters the cab, he says into a cell phone loud enough for you to hear: “Everything’s wonderful.  It’s all gone and the doctor says she’s going to be fine.”
And that’s the best dream anyone can dream, whether at Christmas or any other time of year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Imitation Dedication Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

(Thoughts on the Dedication Page…sometimes also known as “How Could You Say Those Things About Me In Public?”)

          After my novel was accepted for publication, the publishing company sent me several documents to fill out and return.

          Besides the actual contract and an “Author Information Sheet,” I also received a “Manuscript Information Sheet.”  Among other things, it asked for both a short excerpt and an even shorter blurb to include in the book, along with a brief author’s biography for the back cover.

          I was also asked to describe the main characters, the time of year when the story takes place, the location where it occurs (big city; small town; jungle; Medieval England; post-apocalyptic Outer Mongolia in the twenty-ninth century; etc.) and to provide any ideas I had for what the cover art might contain.

          All of those questions were to be expected, and dealing with them is definitely a good way to focus your attention on how you envision your book and hope to present it to a potential reader.

          But then there was the unexpected question, the one that asks for something to include on your dedication page.

          Dedication page?


          For some reason, that was something I hadn’t considered.

          Describing your main characters in a few brief sentences is certainly straightforward enough.  I mean, if your hero has spent several hundred pages being a five-foot-ten-inch, dark-haired, 26-year-old musician, suddenly turning him into a six-foot-three-inch, red-headed, 58-year-old banker for the “Manuscript Information Sheet” is obviously dumber than dumb. 

The dedication page, however, can present a whole other can of worms.

First, there’s the matter of who receives the dedication.  Then the even more complicated question of content and tone.

Many writers will keep it simple and happily noncontroversial.  They’ll use initials (“For X.Y.Z.”) or else something along the lines of “For My Parents.”

Then there’s the slightly more effusive dedication: “To my dog Spot for his unfailing love and loyalty lo these many years.”

And, of course, there are those wonderfully memorable dedications, where the author either settles old scores or reveals just a little too much about either him/herself or the recipient.  Think Mark Wahlberg’s dedicatory shout-out to his penis during his Marky Mark days.  Presumably, his male member wasn’t embarrassed by the accolade, though Mr. Wahlberg later admitted that he himself was. 

Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether V. V. and Mme. A were similarly embarrassed when Patrick Dennis of Auntie Mame fame called them “the worst manuscript typists in New York” on his dedication page.  But, presumably, P. G. Wodehouse’s little girl knew her dad was only joking when he dedicated “The Heart of a Goof” to “my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”

In the age-old tradition of the lord (all right, in this case, the writer) giveth and the lord (sorry…the writer) taketh away, you have Albert Malvino’s dedication to “my brilliant and beautiful wife without whom I would be nothing.  She always comforts and consoles, never complains or interferes, asks nothing, and endures all.  She also writes my dedications.”

In the second volume of his Skullduggery Pleasant books, Derek Landy performs the same deft maneuver, giving with one pen stroke, then quickly and humorously taking away with the next as he informs the world that “this book is dedicated to my family—because otherwise I’d never hear the end of it.”      

In my own case, I decided to dedicate the book to my sister and immediately began checking out the internet for quotes on sisterhood in general and older sisters in particular.  Not surprisingly, the quotes ranged from Pam Brown’s sweetly sincere “An older sister is a friend and defender—a listener, conspirator, a counselor and a sharer of delights…and sorrows too” to Charles M. Schulz’s deliciously snarky “Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life.”

The first dedication I managed to cobble together went something like this:

For L.R.
Who thinks too much, worries too much and eats too much hard candy, but who also puts up with a great deal without complaining (too much).

Then I decided, no, not quite what I wanted and scrapped it in favor of extreme no-frills: “For L.R.”

Scrapped that in favor of something marginally more elaborate: “To L.R.  For everything.”

And finally scrapped that for the following, a salute that is in equal parts snarky and sincere:

For L.A.R. --
Someone once said that "families are like fudge…mostly sweet with a few nuts."  With that undeniable truth in mind, this book is dedicated with love and gratitude to my sister, the greatest pistachio of them all.

And that’s the one I stayed with, the one that will appear on the dedication page of the book.

What does my sister think about it?  Well, she does have a good sense of humor, but actually there’s no way to know.  I still haven’t gotten around to telling her, and since my novel is an e-book, which will never be converted to the old-fashioned paper variety, chances are she’ll probably never see it.   You see, my sister still firmly believes that Guttenberg got it exactly right all those centuries ago.  Print on paper is the only way to go.  So she doesn’t do digital.  Which means I may just keep it to myself unless she finally decides to go Kindle or Nook. 

Of course if I someday have a book that does go to print, one I’m pretty certain she’ll actually see, I may use it again in that venue.  After all, as every committed environmentalist knows, recycling is always the best policy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion...except for the cover of my book, which is perfect

     Sorry to disagree with both Sir Francis Bacon and Edgar Allan Poe, but I recently received the cover art for my novel, “Finding You Again,” and I do consider it basically perfect, not a strange proportion anywhere in sight.  So I’m totally psyched.

     The incredibly talented Kimberlee Mendoza created it, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.  Which is why I’m including a copy of it with this post.

      No question about it, the artists at The Wild Rose Press are the best.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Don't Look Back. Something Might Be Gaining On You

The glorious Satchel Paige was undoubtedly right in that advice.  Often the best policy is to keep your eyes and attention focused on the myriad possibilities that lay ahead of you rather than on the unalterable events, decisions and mistakes that lay behind.

But when called on to provide an autobiographical sketch, looking back at least a little is necessary.  So here goes a brief glance into the past to describe something about me.

          I was born in a big city and grew up amid pavements, pigeons and the near-constant clamor of bumper-to-bumper traffic and testy pedestrians.  In acknowledging my brick-and-asphalt background, my college roommate, who hailed from a small town filled with lush greenery, once actually said, "When did you see your first real tree and did you know what you were looking at?"  She later insisted it was a joke, but since she seemed dead serious at the time, I still have my doubts.
          A writer and researcher, who has dealt with subjects as diverse as international organizations, multiple sclerosis, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the Soviet Union (when there still was a Soviet Union), I enjoy taking long walks, visiting the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Etruscan and dinosaur exhibits in museums, doing sudoku (but only the easy ones) and concocting stories about everyday people who laugh a lot, cry a little and ultimately find the happily-ever-after they deserve.         

At the moment, I still live in a big city, but now thanks to the diligence of the local Parks Department, I can always recognize a real tree when I see one.

Friday, June 10, 2011

To Be Or Not To Be…A Naval DDS

Years ago, in my carefree but highly unfocused youth, I took one of those tests designed to pinpoint a person’s perfect career.

It pinpointed my perfect career as being a dentist in the Navy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have only the highest admiration for the brave men and women who serve in every branch of the military, and I greatly respect those equally accomplished men and women who study for years until they’ve acquired the skill to keep our mouths in tiptop condition.  But since I get motion sick from just thinking of bobbing around on a ship and since the mere prospect of looking at an infected tooth, let alone actually ripping it out of someone’s head, both leave me feeling seriously queasy, I figured the test results were a little less than accurate.

So I ignored them and decided to become a writer instead.

I know…saying you’re a writer is like saying you breathe.  Everybody is a writer, or once was, or plans to be, someday

But unlike some of those someday writers, who somehow never get around to putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I actually had the good fortune of doing it via research reports, several short stories and now (cue the triumphal music) a book that’s just been contracted for digital release by The Wild Rose Press, a publisher of romance fiction.

More on that soon. 

For purposes of this post, my only point is that I made the right decision.  By following my heart instead of some test results, I not only remained a happier person, I also kept both the U.S. Navy and an unknown number of innocent toothache sufferers safer and healthier by staying as far away from them as possible.