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MFA in Writing at Vermont College

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Just noticed I had a viewer from Germany.  Here is a shout out to my German audience! I'm big in Germany!

Opening Lines

Remember that feeling as a kid of walking up and down the candy aisle trying to pick just the right candy bar?  How you studied the different colors and shapes of the wrappers and analyzed the pros and cons of chocolate vs. caramel, hard vs. chewy, the tried and true vs. something crazy and new?  The choices were overwhelming and could take you in any number of directions.  In the end you would have settled for just about any one of them (except Almond Joy) but yet you agonized over just the right selection. 
Okay, that wasn’t me as a kid that was me last week at Walgreens.  But now that I am older, I also get that feeling when I am at the library.  I look at the book aisle and drool over the possibilities. I study the different colors and shapes on the covers and analyze the pros and cons of adventure vs. comedy, light vs. heavy, the tried and true vs. something crazy and new.  The choices are overwhelming and can take me in any number of directions.  In the end I would settle for just about any one of them (except Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret) but yet I agonize over just the right selection. 
The nice thing about books, unlike candy bars, is that you can open them up and peer inside before taking them home.  And that is exactly what I do.  I take a book off the shelf, pull back the cover and study the first line to see if it catches my attention.  
Some opening lines are like sweet milk chocolate and I know after the first taste it is right for me.  Others are as bitter as a stale lemon drop and go immediately back on the shelf.  It is that opening line that will make or break the deal.
So without further delay.  Here are my top five candy bars and opening lines of novels.

Number 5
                The Bit O’ Honey of my list: Chewy and long lasting.
                "I come from a family with a lot of dead people." 
                                                   Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

Number 4
                The Mars Bar with Almonds:  Nothing special up front but then you add the nuts and whamo!
               “All this happened, more or less.”
                                                   Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Number 3
               The 3 Musketeers:  Smooth, yet surprisingly good.
               "It was the day my grandmother exploded.” 
                                                  The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks

Number 2
                Jelly Beans!  Jelly Beans! Jelly Beans:  There is so much to love here.
                "Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do."
                                                  Ragweed by Avi

Number 1
                The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup:  Was there ever a doubt!
                “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
                                                  Feed by M.T. Anderson

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Long Term Memory

             Watching the baseball game last night I heard the announcer comment during a pitching change that the relief pitcher “better have a short memory.” He was referring to not letting the three run homer the pitcher gave up the night before affect his performance in tonight’s game.
 I have learned that if I want to be a writer I “better have a long memory.”
             Yesterday, I received the much too familiar, large manila envelope in my mailbox. This of course signaled yet another rejection.  There is nothing more depressing than receiving a rejection slip in an envelope you helped fill out.
              I sliced open the envelope and read the letter.  Thank you for your submission.  We receive a large volume of manuscripts per year and can publish only a small few. Not what we are looking for at the moment.
              Translation: Stop bothering us.  Your story is a bunch of hog manure. 
              I placed the letter on top of the overflowing box of rejections at my feet, put my hands on my head and sat back to do a little self talk. I believe all struggling writers must get good at this talk.
              That is when it dawned on me…  I had just received a rejection slip but had not submitted that particular story in years. 
              I sprang to the edge of my seat and opened up the spreadsheet I use to track my submissions.  I scanned down the list looking for this specific publisher.  I had to scan pretty far down the list because it had been 18 months since I had sent out that manuscript.
              Let me put that in perspective for a moment... it took me one and a half years or 570 days to get rejected.  Phileas Fogg could have circled the world seven times in that timeframe.
              Since I sent out that manuscript here is a list of things that have happened:
·         Chilean miners saved after 69 days
·         The president of Honduras was overthrown in a coup
·         The H1N1 virus took over the country
·         We found water on the moon
·         Humans trapped antimatter
·         And Pepsi changed its logo
  I read that a writer receives an average of forty rejections to every published story.  Let’s for a moment pretend these odds are correct.  At my current rate I will be… let me figure this out a moment… hold on… bear with me, I’m a writer not a mathematician… okay I got it… I will be 97 by the time I publish my first story.
              I will be reading my first published novel from my nursing home bed while sipping a nice plastic glass of prune juice. Someone who is born tomorrow could read my first book on the day they retire. 
              Where is the nearest bridge?  Someone stop me.  A year and a half to get rejected!  My mother would have the National Guard on my case if it took me a year and a half to return her phone call.  I would be in prison if it took me that long to pay my taxes. 
              I need help.  I need counseling.  I think I may be hyperventilating.  Why did I choose this profession?  Catch me… I am about to faint.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Writing Desk

                I have learned a valuable writing lesson today.  Perhaps the most important lesson of my writing career thus far.   A lesson so important no writer can go without this advice. 
                I realize this sounds simple.  But today’s standard laptop does not handle a Grande coffee poured over the keyboard very well.  In fact, computers will short out and shut down when in contact with extreme amounts of hot coffee.   The local Starbucks barista will come and clean off the table but they will not help you restore your hard drive or rewrite your current story.
                I know you are asking yourself, “How could a writer be so careless with his stories?” Perhaps this is why I am still unpublished.  I wonder if Jane Austin ever lost a story to coffee?
                As unorthodox as it may be, a local coffee shop has always been my writing desk.  I like to tell myself that it has something to do with the energy and excitement of all the people coming and going.  I’m attracted by the soft music and gentle lights.  But in reality, I write at Starbucks because I am not disciplined enough to write at home. 
                There are too many distractions at home.  The phone is ringing, the television is calling, the refrigerator is tempting, the honey-do list staring.  I have always found getting out of the house the better option.  It allows me to focus on the task of writing. 
                But, perhaps that is why I am the king of slush piles.  How many famous writers have to leave the house and go to a coffee shop to get work done?  I did some research and found exactly zero.  I did a Google search for “author’s writing places” and saw Janet Evanovich’s nice organized writing desk in a little nook of her house (no coffee on her desk).  I viewed the big wooden desks of Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien.  The closest I came to a coffee shop was Andrew Clements who writes in a remade shed in his backyard.  I found no one who writes at a Starbucks with a Venti Caramel Macchiato looming dangerously nearby.
                I did however discover some exciting facts.  I read that Gustave Flaubert kept his lover’s slippers and mittens in his writing desk.  My wife, however, refused to give me any articles of her clothing for good luck.  I also read that John Clever wore a suit to his writing studio whereupon he removed his clothing, hung it on the door and proceeded to write in his underwear.  I do believe if I tried this at Starbucks I would most likely be writing my next column from behind bars. 
                Determined to change my misfortune, I announced to my wife that I needed a place within our home in which to write.  No more Starbucks for me.  She reminded me that all of the rooms of our house were currently being used for things such as sleeping, eating, and bathing.  She also, not so politely I may add, reminded me that I no longer had a computer upon which to write.
                Oh, the life of the unpublished.  Nowhere to write and nothing to write upon.  I believe these to be two key ingredients to writing success and I have neither.  Would Babe Ruth have been able to hit home runs without a baseball bat?  Let’s see Picasso work without paint.  Yet, that is exactly where I find myself in my writing career.
                Career?  How dare I be so bold!  A career must actually bring in some money.  Writing is a mere hobby.  My wife reminded me recently as we filled out our taxes that she made twenty dollars playing her French horn at a nursing home and that outdistanced my gross writing income for the year by twenty dollars.
                I didn’t want to mention that if we take out all the coffee I have consumed over the year, the price of paper and toner, and now the cost of a new laptop, I am actually in negative numbers.  Perhaps, I will take to drinking.  It seemed to work for Ernest Hemingway.