Friday, September 30, 2011

Should you get your child "labelled?"

I was speaking yesterday to a mother whose child in Grade 1 is acting up in school. The kid can’t sit still so runs around the classroom. He interrupts the teacher when she’s reading to the kids. He’s throwing stones in the playground, at both teachers and students.

“They want to do some testing on him, but I’m afraid of getting him labeled,” the mother said to me.

Whoa! Did that set off a trip down memory lane for me. “I don’t want to get him labeled,” kept resonating through my brain after she said it.

I was thinking, “Huh? You don’t want to get him labeled?  You actually think he’s not ALREADY labeled? Take it from me. He’s labeled. He’s the "bad kid.”

Though I was not close with this woman and didn’t know her child personally, I decided to share thoughts about my own situation with our son when he was in Grade 1. I’m usually loathe to extrapolate my own personal experiences onto others, yet I felt this was too important to let go. I decided to  speak up. The mother would of course make her own decision about her son, but I wanted her to have another perspective on the situation.

When my son Michael entered Grade 1 after several successful pre-school and kindergarten small classroom experiences in a Montessori school, everything started falling apart. Like this woman’s son, he was disruptive, couldn’t sit still, was throwing stones in the playground during recess, didn’t play well with the other children.Though I knew part of the problem was a large classroom and less personal attention, that couldn't be the only issue.

I spent umpteen hours meeting with his new teacher and the principal trying to come up with ways to help Michael adjust to a 30-kid classroom, without demanding too much of the teacher’s time. Why should my kid eat up the time of a teacher who has so many other children to take care of?

But the teacher, who was new to teaching, basically didn’t try any of the accommodations we came up with. She saw my son as a serious behavioural problem. He was a kid who “acted-up.” And in fact, he WAS all that she said he was. The problem was, she wasn’t interested in why or trying to do something about it.

My son was suffering terribly from all the reprimands and disdain from other kids. They started bullying him, calling him names. They liked seeing him get into trouble and purposely triggered his anger  to see him act up. Michael became more isolated and unhappy. His behaviour was getting worse. He didn’t want to go to school anymore.

My husband and I decided it was time to get a psycho-educational assessment. Our family doctor, who had always thought of our son as just a “busy, active” boy who would outgrow his restlessness, agreed it was time. He was getting into too much trouble.

We got an appointment at the Child Development Clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children here in Toronto.

It was time. Michael was about to be expelled. When they let him back in the following semester, the plan was to put him straight into a classroom for children with behavioural problems. They didn't even consider the classroom for children with learning disabilities. Nor did we. We didn't know if he had any.

When I told my friends about the appointment for an assessment, several were shocked, and said so. “You’ll get him labeled.”  “A label will follow him the rest of his life.”  “Teachers will just see him as a label.”  “He’s just a busy, creative guy. The teachers don’t appreciate how smart and creative he is.”  “They might want to give Michael drugs.”  “Michael’s just his own person. Don’t let anyone put a label on him because he’s a little different.”

I was pretty shocked myself. With them. Why were they so adamant? What was so bad about a label? What if Michael had a learning disability or other, perhaps physical problem that affected his ability to learn and get along with other children in school?  If we understood the problem, we could get help for him. Intervene. He was suffering with the status quo. Do kids act up and get in trouble for no reason?

I began thinking that perhaps people’s stridency against testing and possible use of medication  reflected an ideology more than it did actual concern for the well-being for my son. Teachers are bad. Psychologists are bad. Labels are bad. Drugs are bad. Maybe, but not necessarily. I’m smart enough to know when I’m getting bad information or advice. No one knows my kid better than I do.  I’m not going to let anyone put my kid on a drug without thoroughly assessing the situation. Why should knowledge or input from other people be a bad thing?

Back to the original issue. Afraid to get the kid labeled?  He’s already labeled.
He’s bad.

In our case, after an extremely thorough assessment of tests, exams and interviews, Michael was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS),  brain damage caused by the alcohol his birth mother drank during her pregnancy with him. Michael’s FASD  (as they now call it) manifested itself in several ways. Severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Learning disabilities. Mild Asperger’s Syndrome-like tendencies as well as mild Obsessive Compulsive symptoms (amongst others). I learned that children with such symptoms, particularly learning disabilities, often exhibit behavioural problems because of their difficulties communicating, understanding social cues, and constant failure in the classroom. They're acting out of desperation. I would too.

Though it was, to put it mildly, disturbing to get the diagnosis, we had come out of the dark. We knew what was wrong with Michael and had some direction how to go about helping him. There were of course no easy answers about “fixing him,” but we knew Michael was no longer bad. It also helped us feel less guilty. Bad parenting wasn't at the root of Michael's problems, as we often feared.

Sure, Michael got another label to replace the old 'bad kid' one, but his diagnosis engendered compassion and empathy from other people. Not scorn and disdain. Once Michael was diagnosed, the Toronto District School Board then actually "labelled" him using the term  LD (learning disablity) as opposed to "Behavioural,"  their designation for two types of children with special needs in the classroom. He was placed in an LD class, rather than the other.

I often worried about the kids labelled "Behavioural" and sent to those classes,. How many may have had problems, whether physical, psychological, emotional or environmenal that hadn't been diagnosed and were interfering with their ability to function in the classroom.

Yes, it’s true. Michael's new FASD diagnosis has followed him all his life (Michael is now 24). But along with it has come with a roadmap. A roadmap to help us, and other people not only help him, but understand him.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Video Trailer Coming To You: My Life in One Minute

 My husband and I are making a one-minute video about my recently completed memoir. It’s a little exercise I plan to post on my blog and circulate however and wherever I can to create interest in my manuscript as I move toward publication.

Needless to say, you can’t say much in one minute. How am I going to sum up a book I spent years writing? It has complex plot twists, myriad of characters, scene changes and a variety of themes running through, and turn it into a one minute visual?  Simple answer. I don’t have a clue how I'm going to do it.

But that’s the challenge. When trying to interest an agent or publisher, I’m going to get one, or at most two paragraphs in my query pitch my book. These are busy, burdened people with a lot of other manuscripts and queries piling up, waiting for delicate responses. If I don’t grab them in my one paragraph, they’re not going to be the least bit interested in reading more. Doesn't matter if my book is beautifully written, has fantastic characters, charming anecdotes and great drama. No one but me is going to know  if I don’t get my pitch short and right on my first, and unfortunately, only try.

No second chances here, and no feedback on where I might have gone wrong.  O’ cruel world.

So in creating my pitch and video, I’ll have to do what fledgling screen writers do when the Hollywood bigwigs come to town, inviting them to give 30-second pitches about their screenplays. The producers, looking for the next Fight Club or Fargo blockbuster, are all ears. For 30 seconds, that is. Gotta use your time well.

Attention spans of producers, agents and publishers are, how do you say politely, similar to a gnat’s newborn. Miniscule, if registerable at all.. So tighten, tighten, tighten.

I’m fortunate that my husband was a documentary film maker with the CBC for over 25 years. Lucky, in that he sees things in pictures. I see things in words. So my challenge is to tell him, in ONE good sentence, or maybe two if he’s being nice that day, what my book is about, so he can put it in pictures. He has of course read the book, but he’s challenging me to get my pitch as tight as I can.

It hasn’t been pretty between us.

According to Leon Kaye in Making A Short Pitch Better, “In short, unless it (the pitch) involves the plot…learning, understanding, musing, rediscovering, etc. do not belong in a short pitch.  It has to be about the lead, his/her goal, the inciting incident, and possibly the complication.  And that's it.”

He also said, that if you’re pitching a particularly complicated story, he’s found it helpful to start the query with a question. Then answer it. So though I’ had already written my pitch a million times, or so it seems, I decided to try it again, this time starting with a question. So today’s pitch for my book, reduced as best I can, and starting with a question, is below. It’s probably not my last try, but I’m giving it a go. Here is the pitch for my new book: 

Love, Complicated

Love, Complicated

My life took a major turn when my adopted-at-birth son was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) at the age of six. According to statistics at the time, his diagnosis was a sentence for failure: he'd drop out of school; he'd be incapable of holding a job; he'd live on welfare, on the street or worse. The brain damage, they said, was irreversible.

With all the love, devotion, hope and medical knowledge I could accumulate, I set out to change the predicted course of events, illustrating the expectations that those of us raised on the activism of the 1960s brought to bear on our lives and families. My struggle to help Michael find his place in the world continues. Life, like love, is complicated.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Honey Cake for a Sweet New Year

Jews, including me, celebrate Rosh Hashanah this week. It’s the Jewish New Year, a two-day holiday that begins at sunset on Wednesday, September 28, and continues until sunset on Friday the 30th to usher in the year 5772 on the lunar calendar.

Rosh Hashana is a quiet, serious holiday for Jews. No vodka shooters. No silly hats, no noisemakers. Rather than merry-making, we are encouraged to reflect on our deeds of the past year, and to ask forgiveness for whatever sins we may have committed, either against God or people. Not a bad thing, of course.

We don’t make this forgiveness thing easy, however. No intermediaries to get us off the hook.  Rather, we’re suppose to either talk directly to god to ask forgiveness for moral transgressions of the ethical kind, or go directly to the people we have transgressed against. We can’t ask God to put in a good word for us. We’ve got to clean up our own messes. Not his job. Not even the rabbi's.

Wish it were.  I’ll tell you. I’d rather walk anonymously into a little dark booth to get things off my chest than walk up to a friend or family member, remind them of the shitty thing I did to them, and then ask them to forgive me. Couldn't I just say a few mea culpas, pound my chest and give an extra few bucks to my charity of choice?

Fortunately, there’s a light side to Rosh Hashana as there is to all Jewish holidays. The food. To affirm our hopes for a sweet new year for our loved ones and ourselves, sweet foods are staples on the Rosh Hashana dinner table. So much so, my husband, a non-Jew, is never really sure when we’ve finished main course dishes and moved onto dessert since the sugar content of each isn’t all that different.

But he’s learned. When the glazed carrots and honey-roasted chicken have been removed from the table, it signals time for dessert. And that dessert, in most Jewish homes, is a rich, dark, dense, spicy, moist, and I must say, delicious honey cake. You don’t have to be Jewish to love it. You just have to have the right recipe, make sure it’s cooked all the way through before taking it out of the oven, and allow it to sit for a day before eating.

There are a million Jewish honey cake recipes in Jewish cookbooks and on the internet, so I’ll spare you the trouble of finding the right one. Toronto food writer, Lucy Waverman printed her honey cake recipe this past week in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, and it’s a winner. Lucy’s recipes always have a flavourful punch because she never stints on the spices needed to bring foods alive.

I wish you and your loved ones a sweet and healthy new year.

Rosh Hashana Honey Cake

Servings: Serves 10 to 12, but lasts for 2 weeks well covered.


3½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup strong coffee
1¼ cups honey
4 eggs
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup golden raisins or chopped dates
1 apple, grated
Icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 300 F. Heavily grease and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.

Combine flour, baking powder, soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger in large bowl. Set aside. Stir together coffee and honey in a separate bowl. Set aside.

Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in brown sugar. Stir in vegetable oil until just combined.

Beat together half of flour mixture and all of honey mixture into egg mixture. Stir in remaining flour mixture, raisins and apples.

Pour batter into prepared bundt pan and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes or until cake is springy to the touch, has begun to come away from the edge of the pan and releases a cake tester cleanly. Let cool in pan for 20 minutes. Run the point of a flexible knife around the edge, unmould onto a rack, cool fully and leave in a cool place, covered, for 24 hours to allow flavours to mellow. Dust with icing sugar just before serving.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Have Platform Will Publish

Just returned from a beautiful bicycling trip for a few blissful days with my husband through the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Unpacked the bags, got a few hours of sleep, sat down at the computer, and there I was. Back at it again.

“It” is researching how to expand my “author platform,” that ubiquitous term I keep running into everytime I read about getting a book published these days. All the articles or blogs I read are talking about platform, as in, ‘If you want a publisher to take note of you, you gotta have a platform. No platform? Fugeddaboudit.” Full stop.
Like it or not, I have to take this platform thing seriously if I want to find a publisher for my recently-completed memoir.  But no matter how many publishing experts promise they can teach me to build my platform in three easy pieces, it makes me tired just thinking about it. People have been telling me for years that it’s easy to knit socks, tighten my abs, make strudel and dye my own hair. I know better.

I do take some comfort, however,  hearing that blogging is a good form of platform-building. I blog, therefore I platform-build.

Platform is what you use or do to make you and your work stand out and build a following. Blogging and tweeting are great ways of building platforms. Linkedin and Facebook pages are good platforms, too. I would imagine skywriting is probably even better than any of those. Hard to sustain though, I suppose. But I’m not completely counting it out yet. Note to self: google skywriters, Toronto.

“Platform maven” Christina Katz, author of Build Your Author Platform says, “Through your platform you sustain an engaging and dynamic presence among fellow writers; develop a devoted following of readers; identify and capitalize on your unique areas of expertise …”

In other words, an extensive platform tells publishers that you’re visible. That you have an audience. People already know who you are, think you have something to say, care about what you have to say, and…drumroll… may even buy your book because they like you (and what you have to say) so much.

In these uneasy times for publishers, I figure that an author platform is a little like Xanax. It will reduce anxiety and increase feelings of tranquility. What publisher couldn’t use a little of that these days?

So I’ll give it to them. It’s the least I can do. I will  build my platform, like the good people say. As some of my readers may know, I’ve already taken one piece of expert advice directed toward increasing readership in my blog,  I’ve taken what they say to mean, ‘focus young lady’. So, I’ve become more focused.

Instead of talking about 62 different subjects in 62 days of blogging as I’ve done (probably a Guinness record of non-focussed blog writing), I’ve narrowed myself down to three topics. I’m writing about my book/memoir. I’m writing about the roller coaster ride otherwise known as getting a book published, and from time to time I’ll write about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the condition my son suffers from – brain damage caused by the alcohol his birthmother drank when pregnant with him. Besides it being an issue close to my heart, it is, not surprisingly, a major theme running through my memoir.

Speaking of focus, I’ll now get back to platform building. So how committed to this grand little exercise am I? I guess I’ll know for sure in the next few days as I decide whether to sign up for September's Writer’s Digest Premium Collection Program of books, webinars and independent study workshops called:  Build an Author Platform. 

Normally $428.97, but for me (and you), only $119.99. A 78% discount just for taking the trouble to register. Only 115 copies left.

The package marketers have pretty much got me hooked with their promises of what their package can do for me: Stand out to editors and agents! Determine what you want to get out of social media then go after it! Promote your talents and credentials in clever, continuous ways at no cost! Build an enviable author platform! Create a 6-point platform strategy!

I think I’m gonna do it, sign up that is. I’m fully aware that parting with a few bucks is probably the easy part. I’m also signing up for a lot of work once I digest the material and have to get cracking.

On second thought, maybe I should make that strudel after all.

If any of my readers have had experience taking Writer’s Digest courses or webinars, or ordered books from their Writer’s Digest Shop, please let me know what your experience has been. It would be good to share it with other readers, too. You can help me build my platform! For free.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Call me a bibliophile

I think a bound book, with good design, lush paper and a venerable typeface is a beautiful thing. For me, a well-crafted book lifts a writer’s words off a page and provides a bonus of respectability to a writer’s art.

People like me love holding a book in our hands. We leap to the back of the book to find out what typeface the printer used, we run our fingers over the paper, and study cover illustrations before deciding whether they ‘work’ or not.

We like knowing little things about publishing, like the top 10 typefaces used by book design winners, which happen to be: Minion, ITC Baskerville, Adobe Garamond, FF Scala, FF Scala Sans, Trade Gothic, Electra, Dante, Fournier and DIN. 

We daydream about which of the 10 we’ll use when our own books are published.
We love books, not just words, information and stories. We’re bibliophiles. 

I’ve been called worse.

Not everyone notices the kind of details about books that we do. Most hardly remember the name of the author when they reach its last page. Most people, understandably, care about content mainly. They don’t get what the big deal is when it comes to font, cover stock or layout. Once they’ve read a book and taken from it what they will, they’re done. Who cares if the publisher used Garamond or Helvetica. 

Unlike some of us bibliophiles, they don’t look at a book thinking the margins should have been a little wider or the paper less glossy.

It’s not a bad thing, actually, especially in today’s publishing world, where more and more people are self-publishing. From what I can see, self-publishing, first and foremost, is about getting a book on the market economically, not about craftsmanship. Most self-publishing companies offer a limited number of design templates and packages for writers to choose from. If you care too much about design details for your tome, you’re in trouble.

No one’s saying ‘it doesn’t matter how your book looks.’ That would be just plain foolish. But self-publishing companies know the design options for writers have to be limited to be economical. Unless you want to spend extra bucks to get your book custom designed, it makes sense to buy a package. Go for the “premium” design package if you want to go the extra inch.

But what does someone like me do?  I care so very much how a book looks, feels and even sounds when you first open it. But if I self-publish, my hunch is that if I have even the slightest practical bone in my body, I’d be smart going for a package. Would it really be worthwhile to spend a heap of money on a designer, and then spend hours upon costly hours with him/her to create the book design of my dreams? 

But am I capable of such compromise? Not sure. I’m going to have to do more research. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a self-published book that it my opinion looks “good.”  That might be because I don’t realize that some really good-looking books I’ve seen are self-published. Or it may be because the price to get a good-looking book printed costs an arm and a leg and no aspiring self-publisher thinks it’s worth putting that kind of money into the design.

Or maybe, there really aren’t any good-looking self-published books out there.

Please tell me if I’m wrong. I truly want to be. You can also tell me if the kind of things I care about, in the end, don’t make any difference. If I want my book published, and no traditional publishing house is going to pay for me to have the gold standard, maybe I just need to ‘let go.’ Forgeddaboutit, as Tony Soprano would so.

I’m not trying to be a snob. I just love books. And, I’m never completely sure if, and when, compromises are, well, worth the compromise.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Blog Mea Culpa (already)

I know, I know. I swore up and down my blog last week that come hell or high water (or both), I was going to stick to three topics only in my blog. After reading article after article from blog experts telling me that a good blog should really focus on one topic only, rather than the 62 different topics I had covered in just about as many days, I decided I would listen to them.

Since I knew that focusing on only one topic was just about out of the question for a brain like mine, I listed three topics I would blog about – only.  I would write about my journey into the world of publishing with my new memoir, Love, Complicated. I’d share some excerpts from the book from time to time and the many writing tips I learned over the years while writing it. And lastly, because it’s so important to me, I’d write about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the cluster of disabilities, including brain damage, caused by the use of alcohol during pregnancy. My adopted-at-birth son was diagnosed with FASD when he was six. Not surprisingly, FASD figures highly in my book.

Those three topics kinda related to one another, I thought.

Yet here I am, only one week later, and all I want to talk about are the movies my husband and I just saw at the Toronto International Film Festivall (tiff) in the last two days. I should have known better than to make idle promises. But I’ll be right back on course with tomorrow’s blog. Honest.

The first movie we saw was In Darkness, a movie that Sony Classics will be releasing in both Canada and the U.S. in the next few weeks. It’s a Canadian, Polish and German co-production, a story about a petty thief who hides a group of Jews in the sewers of Poland during WWII, to save them from the Nazis. It’s beautifully made, with gripping realism. A four hanky movie with enough redemptive scenes to make it all bearable. Superb acting, cinematography, art design and directing. Agnieska Hollander, a well-known Polish director whose movie credits include Academy Award winner Europa, Europa, has a firm hand on every scene.  I can’t recommend it enough. Just don’t forget the hankies.

The lesser, more indie, art-house type films we saw were Behold the Lamb from Northern Ireland, and Footnote from Israel. It’s fun to take your chances at tiff with unknown movies, and if you’re lucky, you get to see little gems like both these well-acted, thoughtful films. There are Q&As with the directors after the Tiff films, so it’s great to get behind the scenes info and ‘the making of’ background, kinda like the Features sections on rented DVD.  

It was fun being out on King Street tonight, feeling the buzz of the tiff scene with the hundreds of other movie-goers. Sure, it’s a pain-in-the-ass to get tickets, wait in rush lines and spend $22 a ticket (!), but Toronto is really lucky to have this cultural event take over the town once a year. Why not be part of it. Next year, if I decide I can part with the money, and that’s a big if, I’m going to buy myself a pass (maybe $400 or something like that) and just go see dozens and dozens of movies in a week, and maybe even take in a gala party or two.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get to see, OMG, really OMG, real live movie stars. Tonight, I only got to clap my eyes on Atom Egoyan walking around the block with his cell phone pressed to his ear making dinner plans, and three goofy-looking guys from Corner Gas talking to a camera. Next year I’m setting my sites a little higher. Maybe Brad and Angie. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Take it from me. Be Safe: have an alcohol-free pregnancy

Every year, 3000 children in Canada are born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).  FASD affects over 300,000 Canadians at an estimated cost of $2 million dollars per person over the lifetime.

FASD is an umbrella term used to describe the range of disabilities caused ONLY by the use of alcohol during a pregnancy. The most serious disability is brain damage.  My son, adopted at birth, was diagnosed with FASD at age six, and yes, he's brain damaged.

FASD is irreversible. It’s a lifelong disability. There is no cure, but it IS preventable.

That’s the message a group of parents and professionals, including myself, were spreading this morning to honour international FASD Awareness day. Around the world, people like us were doing the same, as we’ll do every year on September 9, the ninth day of the ninth month.

Dozens of us assembled in the Great Hall of Toronto’s Union Station to greet commuters on their way to work. Looking a little silly with our t-shirts stuffed with balloons to emulate pregnant women, we passed out brochures, rang bells and gave speeches to reach the hordes of incoming commuters rushing through the train station.

At 9:09, we stood in silence for a pregnant pause. During my silence, I could feel tears well up, thinking about my son and the hardships his disability have brought both him and our family. Our son’s brain damage affects his ability to learn, concentrate, remember things, interact socially, and understand cause and effect. He has a sweet and kind spirit, but dropped out of school and is unable to hold a job. At 24, we're still helping him find his place in the world.

This is not what you  want this for your child. Or anyone’s child. Trust me.

There is no known safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy, and there is NO safe time to drink. Many people think that it’s okay to have a drink or two after a few months when the baby’s brain has stopped growing. Not true. A baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy, so the safest choice is no alcohol at all.

One kind of alcohol is no different from another. All alcohol harms, whether it’s beer, coolers, wine or spirits.

Many women understandably worry about the few drinks they may have had before they knew they were pregnant. Having a small amount of alcohol before you knew is not likely to harm your baby, but it’s essential to stop drinking as soon as you know.

My son’s birthmother was a binge drinker. We didn’t know, though, until he was diagnosed with FASD and we went back to her with the diagnosis. She then admitted her drinking habits. This is not an uncommon story. Few people ever heard of FASD when my son was born 24 years ago, and most people, including doctors, didn’t have a clue how dangerous it was to drink during pregnancy.

But now we DO KNOW. The message is clear. Don’t drink while pregnant.

So pass on this recipe for a  tasty ‘mocktail’ to any pregnant woman you might know:

                                   Backyard Caesar Mocktail

  1. Rim a tall glass with fresh lime and celery salt
  2. Fill the glas with ice and add 2 tp spicy BBQ sauce, ¼ oz. lime juice and 4 oz. Clamato.
  3. Stir to mix. Garnish with a beef pepperette
For more non-alcoholic recipes:

    To learn more about FASD, ask questions or share concerns, call:

    Motherisk 1-877-FAS-INFO (I-877-327-4636
    Your healthcare provider
    Your local health unit
    Telehealth Ontario 1-866-797-0000

    For more information:

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Writers (and everyone else) need friends and critics, not trolls

    Writers need thick skins. We’re not the only ones of course, but shopping a book around for a publisher is tough, and it’s the rare writer who doesn’t meet with a stack of rejection notices along the way. So until I take the seriously good advice from Catherine Ryan Howard’s delightful and helpful blog, Catherine Caffeinated, and choose the self-publishing route, I’m trying to toughen up.

    I’ve learned from the book editors I’ve used for my memoir Love, Complicated, that criticism can be highly constructive. Yet, I still bristle with hurt sometimes when my book or writing is criticized. I’m not sure why since overall, good solid constructive criticism has only served to improve my writing. I’ve had to ask myself why then, do I sometimes lose perspective and get all defensive with some people.

    I found the answer this morning when I read a passage in a blog by Michael Hyatt, the Chair of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

    “You have to distinguish between friends, critics and trolls,”  Hyatt says:

         * Friends love you and are willing to share with you the truth, even if it hurts a little bit.
         * Critics don’t have anything personal against you; they simply disagree with you.
         * Trolls are spoiling for a fight. They attack you because something is wrong with their heart. My best advice is to ignore them. If you engage them, it only strengthens their resolve.

    Okay friends and critics, sock it to me if you must. Notice to all trolls: just stay away. And not just when you're talking about my book. I don't need trolls in my life for anything. I'm hard enough on myself. I don't need any help.

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    The experts agree: no more than three blog topics

    I’m not a highly focused person.

    I probably don’t need to tell my readers this. All we need to do is take a look at the subjects of my blogs to see what I’m talking about:mandel bread, the Jewish biscotti; a new photography app for smartphones; spring returns to my garden; doctors say grumpiness helps us live longer; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, my son’s disability; completing my new book; the beauty of collective nouns; one minute memoirs; hiking the Appalachian Trail; Rihanna and Neil Young. Whew! What didn’t I talk about?

    Sometimes my highly unfocused mind serves me well. I’m curious. I take in a lot. I’m interested in just about everything except numbers and machines, therefore have a lot of information and knowledge at my fingertips.  I’m able to make order and connections out of seemingly disparate ideas and thoughts. I have a good photographic eye because I see so much.  At the best of times, my writing reflects all that I see, smell, taste, hear and feel. And because I’m not a linear thinker, I don’t see the world from one point of view. I can bring fresh, new ways of looking at things to any discussion. I’m a godsend at parties.

    But sometimes my lack of focus does not serve me well. While I’ve always known this, it really hit home this week when I started browsing the web about what makes a good blog. Besides getting repeatedly lost during my search because everything that popped up fascinated me, I learned this. The experts agree. If you want to attract a good following, a blog should be focused. At most, it should not cover more than three topics. Better one or two. That’s it. One is good, two okay and three if you must.

    Well, blow me down.  I’ve written 62 separate blogs, and guess what. Except for one or two repeated themes about writing, photography and food, all my other blogs were on different topics.

    According to the experts, I’m everywhere and nowhere. I’ve been fortunate though. My blog readers seem to enjoy the all-over-the-place approach I’ve taken, They see my entries as good reads. They’re not particularly concerned that whatever it is I’m going on about one day will be different from what I blather on about the next. They, like me, probably lack focus.

    But I can see that this approach has its shortcomings. My blog is not a go-to stop for people interested in learning about a particular topic or subject matter of interest to them.

    Though I might write an entry about housecleaning, aficionados of bacteria-free zones aren’t going to come back to me again and again. They’re not interested in my next day’s entry about making the perfect chicken soup (the secret, by the way, is parsnips in the stock). They’ll go to a blog they know will provide the inside scoop on getting rid of mildew on bathroom tiles, or recommends green alternatives to Mr. Clean.

    I might write about the glories of baking soda too, but there’s no guarantee when, and of course if, I’ll ever get around to it.

    Note to self:  find more green alternative to Mr. Clean for cleaning tile mildew. Then blog.

    I’m too hit and miss. No one has a clue what’s coming next in my blog, so they’re hardly breathless waiting for next installment. I understand that. I don’t have a clue what’s coming in my next blog, either. Not good when you’re looking for followers.

    Well, all this is about to change. Wish me good luck, because I’m about to make a big about turn with my blog based on the experts’ advice . Knowing myself, however, there is absolutely no way on earth I’ll be able to blog about one, or even two topics. I might as well be in prison.

    So I’m bound and determined to try to focus my blog on three subject matters only.

    It hasn’t been easy narrowing down what these three will be, but I’ve done it. I’ve come up with three.  Three rather B-R-O-A-D subjects, I might add. I need all the leeway I can get.

    So here it goes. Since I’ve recently completed writing my memoir and the next step is getting the book published, I’ll be blogging about my real life experience of getting my book published. It will include a good hard look at the pros and cons about self-publishing as well as going the traditional publishing route, which involves finding an agent or submitting manuscripts directly to a publisher.

    Both looking for an agent and/or a mainstream publisher is more complicated than most people realize.  I will have no problem filling up blog entries about the process. It’s going to be one bumpy roller coaster ride for me considering the state of the publishing industry these days, and my plan is to take my readers along for company. It may be enlightening.

    Topic #2 will be about the book itself. I’ll include excerpts and things I learned during the six years it took to write it, including writing tips editors taught me along the way.

    I’m up to Topic # 3. Much, though not all of my memoir is about raising our adopted son Michael, who at age six was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He is permanently brain damaged by the alcohol his birth mother consumed when pregnant with him. Though Michael is 24, much of my life is devoted to helping him find a place in the world. I’d like to write about Michael, FAS and one of its major symptoms, ADD. I’ll also write about the struggles raising a special needs child, and how, as a mother, I try to live my life with as much joy an courage as I can muster in the face of our family’s struggles.

    There you have it. I’m sure blog experts would be taken aback by the long-winded paragraphs I’ve created to tell you what Topics #1 – 3 are. They were probably thinking of subject matters that could be described a little more succinctly, like skydiving, perfect picnics fare or how to become a billionaire, for instance.

    Clearly, they have no idea what it’s like to be unfocussed. I’m not only proud of coming up with three blog topics for myself, but being able to describe them in a mere 260 words.

    Now, all that’s left is sticking to my plan. I know it won’t be easy. What do I do with all the other thoughts and ideas swirling around in my grey matter?

    You know what’s going to be the hardest thing about staying within bounds of these three topics?  Sticking to one of the topics in each blog rather than infusing a little of topic one two and three in each posting.

    You have no idea how hard it is to stay focused when it doesn’t come naturally.

    Never mind. Honest and truly, I’m going to give it a few months and see how it goes. All thoughts, comments and suggestions from readers are welcome, even encouraged. I’m going to need all the help I can get.

    Just don’t get me off topic, okay?

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Freeing Your Inner Writing Voice

    Some of my blog readers already know that I have just completed writing a memoir. It’s taken years to write, rewrite and finish my manuscript to the point I can) say, “I’m done.”  At least for now. I’m proud of the book, think it’s good read, and feel it’s ready to enter the world. It wasn’t easy getting here. 

    I'll talk more about the book content in another blog.

    I didn’t write this book alone, which is one of the reasons I have the confidence to say finito. Along the way, I have been blessed with wonderful editors who guided me and forced me to look scrupulously at everything that goes into making a good story. 

    Note to all serious writers: if you're working alone, invest in a good editor. Find one you like and trust. It may cost, but it's worth every penny. An experienced editor can turn good into great. And in this tight publishing market, good isn't good enough.

    When I began writing my book,  I not only had to figure out what it was I wanted to say, but once I did, I then had to decide how to turn that into a story with a beginning middle and end, complete with denouement and climax.  Lives aren’t built on structures like that, unless you want to cover birth, middle-age and then death. I had to craft the bits and pieces from my life that I wanted to talk about into a coherent story. I can’t tell you the number of times I had to rejig the structure, rewrite a different beginning and construct a new ending. Unforrtunately, the  material I could work with wais limited. Go ahead, try talking about your life in one cohesive story.

    Describing a series of events, no matter how interesting each might be, would not create a story that someone other than my mother would want to read. So besides creating an ongoing  and engaging story, I had to find my own style and way of connecting to readers who don’t know me.

    To do that, I had to find my ‘voice’, which all writers know is no easy thing. I had to write and sound like the authentic ‘me’. It took the first year, at least, to find who that me was, in a style that would flow through my words and dialogue so the reader could get to know me.  Voice , essentially, becomes Character Development 101.

    A lot of what I wrote in my manuscript during the first years ended up, rightly so, in the trash heap. Though I liked some, if not much of what I wrote early on, I realized, through the help of editors, much of it didn’t move the story along. Interesting stuff, maybe, but how does it advance the story, I had to ask.  If it doesn’t, kill it.

    These charming, delightful, witty and clever bon mots are ften referred to as our  “little darlings,”We love them to pieces. But I was forced to be ruthless with the babes. They weren't easy to let go. They were so tremendously satisfying when I first wrote them. Yet out they eventually went, with me kicking and screaming as I pressed delete.

    It was the same lesson I had to learn in my garden. Purge! Be ruthless! All those pretty little runners and seedlings and flowering weeds just take away from the overall look. They rob glory from the major plants that give backbone and coherence.

    Life is so unfair.

    Finding my voice has aided me tremendously in writing this blog, by the way. It took time, but I finally learned to write the way I speak. Though I’m forever editing what I write, I don’t censor myself. I don’t look for big words or try to sound smart. I write what I think and feel. Though the conversation is one way, I try to talk to people  not at them.

    I encourage other people to find their writing voice, too. It takes time, but once you do, it really frees up your writing. Finding your voice will make you sound like you, no one else.

    Here’s a little exercise I suggest to help you find your voice. Think of what you did last weekend, this morning, yesterday or last week. When you choose or what you did doesn’t matter. Then, write a 350 word (real or imaginary) letter to a good friend about your experiences. You may include how you feel about everything, what experiences meant to you, what you learned, what you liked, what you didn’t. You can describe people you were with, your feelings about them, etc.

    Just make sure it’s a letter to a good friend, not a letter to your mother (you might censor yourself). Not to a lover (you might try to impress). Not to your child (you might want to come off looking ‘good’). A letter to a good friend you can tell anything to and who will accept what you did, think and feel. 

    Ready, set, go. Let ‘er rip.

    Keep going until your letter writing starts to flow  naturally. You may have to write and rewrite until you find an honesty in your words. You’ll know when you get there.

    Let me know how it goes.