Monday, May 31, 2010

Dad, me, and the OED

I get my love of reading from my parents. They're both voracious readers, and their books are stacked at least three deep on the bookshelves they've shoehorned into every available space in their home.

As far back as I can remember, I had access to books - lots and lots and lots of books. My only shortage was time - there simply wasn't enough of it to read everything I wanted to read. So yes, I was one of those kids given to reading under the covers by flashlight when I should have been sleeping. And though I know my parents were on to my dodge, I don't remember ever being ordered to shut off the flashlight and go to sleep. As strict as they were, bedtimes were never enforced if it meant closing a book before I was ready.

So while my parents share equally in laying the foundations for my love of reading, my love of words - their power to entertain, persuade, amaze, incite, and inspire - was a gift from my father. It came as he and I played the card game "Authors," when I was still too young to have read any of the featured novels (no wonder he always won), and he shared his memories of why each book made an impression on him the first time he read it. It came when I was about 10 and he handed me a copy of Freckles as if it were solid gold, with the wish that I would love it as much as he did (to this day, Freckles is one of my favorite books, and not just because of the words on the page). It came again and again over the years as he would look up from something he was reading and say, "You have to read this." And then I would read, and he would wait, and when I looked up we would shake our heads and say, "Wow!" in unison, marveling together at the power of words wrought by a master.

I don't think either of us realized it at the time, but word by word and wow by wow, he awoke in me the dream to be a writer. And though I didn't have the courage to go for it all out, the way Jo Rowling did when she scurried down the Classics hall instead of studying something that would pay the bills, I settled on journalism, the best compromise of art and pragmatism I could find. I did it at least in part to honor him, by making a living with the words he taught me to love.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

touched by history

Battery Buchanan guarded New Inlet, the main access to the Cape Fear River

When I worked for the Star-News in the early 1980s, we did a number of special publications, thick tabloids that got slipped into the regular newspaper five or six times a year, usually on Sundays. Publishers loved these tabloids because they brought in a lot of incremental advertising revenue. Reporters, for the most part, loathed them, because the work was piled on top of our regular assignments, and we never got an extra dime for it.

So it was with the largest and most onerous of all the annual tabloids, the Cape Fear Coast tourism insert. I still remember the grumbling when the assignments were handed out, and I probably did more than my share of the grousing. But the assignments I dreaded the most are, almost without exception, the ones that had the most profound effect on me as a person, and so it was with the tourism insert.

To this day, I can't tell you how the editors decided who would do which stories. Perhaps because I had just moved to Carolina Beach, the northernmost town on Pleasure Island, I drew several assignments to write about its various attractions.

In fact, Pleasure Island isn't an island at all. It's the southern tip of New Hanover County, which grows increasingly narrow as the Cape Fear River flows southeast to the Atlantic Ocean. At its terminus, a spit of land just wide enough to walk on, river, sea and sky merge into a vastness I've never experienced anywhere else. And it was here, on this narrow strip of land, that perhaps the greatest Civil War battle you've never heard of was fought, irrevocably sealing the Confederacy's fate.

Friday, May 14, 2010

coming home to a place i'd never been before

The photo that introduces this post is of perhaps my favorite place on earth: my hometown of Wilmington, NC.

When I say Wilmington is my hometown, I don't mean it in the sense most people do. Although I was born in Wilmington, I didn't grow up there. My father worked for IBM in the days when those three letters stood for "I've Been Moved." It got so bad, or so the story goes, that I looked up from my books one day when I was 4, surveyed our house with a disparaging air, and declared "this place is getting old." We'd lived there less than six months.

With all that moving, I never visited Wilmington until I was 21 and about to graduate from college with a degree in journalism. The economy was bad in the late 1970s, the newspaper business was in a severe recession, and jobs were tough to come by. But my adviser at UNC-Chapel Hill, the legendary Jim Shumaker (yes, that Jim Shumaker, the inspiration for Jeff MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strip) was friends with Charles "Andy" Anderson, executive editor of the Wilmington Star-News. Andy was doing a great job of turning the one-time rag into a scrappy and fast-growing paper, in part by hiring cheap, hungry, young talent. Andy had a job opening for a cub reporter. Shu, God bless him, got me an interview.

Monday, May 10, 2010

going pro

I just returned from the Post Office, where I dropped off my application to become a PRO member of Romance Writers of America. PRO is a weird little purgatory where writers who are serious about getting published drift while waiting for THE CALL that will offer them a contract and convert them to a PAN -- a member of RWA's Published Author Network.

The requirements for PRO are that you be a member of RWA, document that you have completed a work of romantic fiction of 40,000 words or more, and prove that you have submitted this work to an RWA-recognized agent or publisher. I've had requirements 1 and 2 covered for quite a while now. And while I have submitted to agents and editors in other genres before, the manuscript I'm currently shopping around was my first romance submission. So I packaged up my rejection letter, my PRO application, and a copy of my novel on CD, and dropped my proof-of-progress at the Post Office, leaving it with the desk agent / minister who always prays over my important writerly packages before sending them on their merry way.

I'm not certain what being PRO earns a writer, besides a rather nice pin to wear on your lapel. The RWA website says PRO focuses on the business side of writing rather than the craft side, and is intended to help PRO members establish relationships with publishing professionals. To learn more, you need to be accepted as a PRO and given the keys to the city -- the magic combination of letters that will unlock the resources stored in the PRO-members-only section of the website. And though I don't know what they might be, I'm eager to get in there and dig around.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

slings & arrows

In the writing game, the risk of rejection is everywhere. And no threat of rejection is more daunting, more potentially lethal, than sending your work to an editor or agent who can dash your dreams with the stroke of a pen.

If you take this risk and send your manuscript, your baby, out into the world in hopes of being published, you are one of two types: naive and delusional (the grandmother who just knows Houghton Mifflin will be thrilled to give her a six-figure advance on her rhyming alphabet book because all of her grandchildren love it); or a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie - battle-weary and wounded, but still hopeful of victory. Yes, he's ridiculous, trying to fight without arms or legs. But I love his never-say-die spirit.

How can anyone be sure, though, whether they're more like the delusional grandma or the dauntless knight? As the tuneless-but-clueless people who audition for American Idol prove year after year, the utterly talentless are the last ones to know how truly bad they are. What if, despite dozens of classes, conferences, and retreats, and five years of twice-a-month critique group meetings, my work was as ghastly as their singing?

Monday, May 3, 2010

an unromantic in paris

Everything they say about the romance of Paris is true. The city’s magic even works on the decidedly unromantic, including my husband.

Now John is one of the best husbands a woman could ever hope to have. He’s intelligent, honest, ethical, fiercely protective, funny, sweet – my best friend for nearly thirty years and counting. But romantic? Not so much. He doesn’t dance; can’t make him. The one time I received flowers with his name on the card, I discovered later that his mother sent them. If he ever comments on what I’m wearing I might have a heart attack. As it hasn’t happened in thirty years, though, I’m probably safe.

But even John, it seems, is not immune to the romance of Paris.

Especially at night, when the monuments glow, Paris is utterly seductive. So despite the early spring chill, we fell into taking long strolls after dinner. Because it’s so beautiful and only a block from the hotel where we stayed, those strolls always led to the Louvre. And each night, in the acoustically perfect outdoor passageways that cut through the palace, we would encounter one of two musicians: a fiercely intense and gifted cellist, or a playful but equally talented classical saxophonist.

On our last walk through the Louvre the saxophonist was in residence. We stopped to listen for a while – the only pedestrians anywhere in sight due to the cold – and he seemed to revel in having an audience. Because we’d enjoyed his performances all week, John dropped a handful of Euros into the musician’s case and we strolled away, holding hands.

That’s when the magic happened. The saxophonist interrupted the classical piece he was performing – stopped in the middle of a complex run, no less – and began to play La Vie en Rose, the beautiful ballad that is virtually the city’s theme song. Never in all the times we’d seen people drop money into his case had he changed his tune, let alone play a pop song. It stopped us in our tracks. We stared at each other, dumbfounded.

And then the magic became a miracle. John wrapped his arms around me and, humming the tune into my hair, began to sway. We were dancing. In the Louvre. To our own private performance of La Vie en Rose.

In that moment I thanked my lucky stars for my unromantic husband. If he did this sort of thing all the time it wouldn’t have been special. It wouldn’t have been magic. He’d waited thirty years for this moment, and when it came, he made it perfect. And isn’t that the essence of true romance?