Tag Archives: editing

So You Think You’re Ready For An Agent

brian-kLast week, I attended my second Chesapeake Writing Workshop in Arlington, VA. Our speaker was Brian A. Klems, Online Editor for Writer’s Digest. The workshop covered some of the basic nuts and bolts of publishing and offered the opportunity to not only pitch (for a fee) some of the agents on hand, but also to have the first page of your work read aloud and critiqued live by a panel of four agents–sort of like The Voice, but for writing.

The “Writers Got Talent” portion of the day didn’t really hold any surprises for me, but a handful of some of the more seasoned attendees noticed that the mood in the room, as page after page was rejected by the agents (some after just a line or two, not even making it to the end of the page), grew increasingly hostile. Some of these aspiring writers in the audience were really angry at the agents, who were, I’m sorry to say, just doing their jobs, the same ones they do every single day, at a pace that can drop hundreds of submissions a day into their inboxes. agent

I’ll be honest, I felt bad for the agents on hand, because I’m sure they could hear the grumblings and see the glares (though they’re agents, so they are unbelievably tough), so I took a lot of notes on the comments the agents were making, because as writers, folks, these are the kinds of things we ignore at our peril. Think you’re ready to submit to an agent? Read through my notes first–you just might thank me someday. Not sure what some of these things mean? Well, that right there’s a red flag for you, but send me a message–I’m happy to clarify.


  • Not to an agent’s taste (means you didn’t research your agent thoroughly enough)
  • Cliches
  • Opening with a time or a date
  • Opening with a line of dialogue with no sense of character, context, or setting
  • Beginning in media res
  • Voice issues
  • Overwhelming words/”Purple Writing“/Overwriting
  • Predicability
  • Clunky, too many descriptors
  • Unoriginal
  • Too much passive voice/telling, not showing
  • Using Film/TV storytelling techniques, like prologues or infodumps, that don’t work in written fiction
  • Switching narrators w/out contest
  • Abuse of reader trust
  • Too much exposition, not enough scene
  • Directly addressing the reader
  • Flat or dated humor
  • Out-of-context breaking of the 4th wall
  • Lack of world-building in dystopian genre
  • Dialogue that’s for the benefit of the reader and not organic to the characters
  • Writing not polished enough
  • Delaying investment in character
  • Heavily covered topics, like funerals, covered in the same old way
  • Starting with backstory or dialogue or character’s inner thoughts rather than scene–does not mean lines of dialogue
  • Lack of familiarity with the intended genre of your work

I could go on, but that’s a pretty long list as it is. The bottom line is, you only get a minute or two to make that good strong impression on an agent, so your query letter and your submission better be outstanding. Good luck, and keep writing!

It bears repeating: Agents are NOT the enemy.

Just so we’re clear: Agents are NOT the enemy.

A Blast From the Past

Have you ever had one of those kismet-y, Twilight Zone-ish moments, where something happens, and the tiny hairs on the back of your neck sort of stand up and give a delicious little wave of recognition that “whoa, this is freaky”? I just had a good one yesterday.

magsI was looking through 1969 issues of Life magazine that my mom had saved. I pulled them out because my son asked me a question about the moon landing, and my mom had saved these particular issues because, of course, they featured that historic event.

We were laughing at the ads and marveling at the ubiquitous presence of cigarettes in hand, the prices of things, etc., when I turned to a story titled “The Creatures of the Tides.” You can see below the image that caught my eye; it’s vivid, crystal-clear, and striking:


But what really made my central nervous system stand up and take notice was the caption: Go ahead, read it. (If it’s too small for you, you’ll just have to take my word for it.) Do you see it? It’s a tardigrade!

Judging by the blank look on your face, perhaps a bit of back story is in order here. I started working on my second novel, The Water Bearers, a couple of years ago and had sort of gotten myself stuck on a plot point. I took a break to see if inspiration would bump me on the head somewhere else, and sat down to watch an episode of Cosmos with my younger son. It happened to be an episode about tardigrades, which I had never heard of before that day, and I will forever be grateful to my science-loving son (and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, of course) for introducing me to them.

If you’ve never heard of tardigrades, either, they are some of the coolest, most fascinating creatures on the planet. These things can freeze completely, or dry into a dormant state resembling death and come back to life, reviving with only a single drop of water. They can survive acid, radiation, and space. Nicknamed the Water Bear, under a microscope, they actually do resemble little bears, and they move like a higher-order animal. They have been found everywhere from glacier holes to pavement stones, from the Himalayas to the bottom of the ocean. They are a true wonder of indestructibility.

There I sat with my son, my jaw hanging open in astonishment, hearing about these creatures for the first time in my life, and BAM! I knew exactly where I was going to go next with the book.

Fast forward back to yesterday afternoon with me now: There I am, sitting on the floor with a pile of magazines that my mother, who passed away in 1996, set aside for her kids way back in 1969, while she was still carrying me in her womb. I imagine her choosing the issues carefully, knowing that she was preserving something important for her children to look back on, decades ahead. I flip the page, see that striking image, read the caption and realize that IT’S A TARDIGRADE.

Maybe I’m being a little melodramatic here (duh, fiction writer), but to me, it felt almost like my mother was sending me a message from the past: “Pay attention to this creature, Jules; it’s going to be important to you someday.”

She was right. First read-through is done, let the editing begin.

Thanks, Mom.








It’s Time.

Who's Ready to Edit? 2

Last time, I posted an update about where I was with The Water Bearers, my second novel. At that time, I was taking a much-needed break from the now-completed first draft before starting the editing process. As I told one writer friend earlier this week, it’s so that I can return to it, when I’m ready to edit, with fresh eyes and a ruthless hand.

I think you can tell from the photo that now, after my two-month break, I’m ready to go (or to kill; not sure which, sometimes).

I had originally intended to start the process around when the King (Stephen) advised to do so, say, six weeks or so after completion. However, today is the last day of my writing class, and it also gives me roughly two weeks until the end of the year, so it feels like this is the perfect time to get this baby all wrapped up.

How exactly does my editing process work?

First, I’ll do a straight read-through from a hard copy, making no edits whatsoever. I’ll just to try to approach it as a reader would, something that’s harder for a writer than you might imagine. I’ll jot some notes in the margin, maybe highlight a couple of things, and, because I work bass-ackwards compared to some writers, I’ll create a working outline from what I’ve done to make sure that all of the elements are plotted out and make sense. Some writers do that last part first, but that’s not how I roll. The one thing that’s true of all writers is that your process has to work for you, not for anyone else.

manuscriptOnce I’ve finished the read-through (which I’m doing on a print copy), then I’ll sit down and play a little Search-and-Destroy–uh, I mean, Search and Refine– the more “mechanical” part of the process. I use the Search feature on my computer to ferret out repetitive words, annoying phrases, etc. It’s a dandy little technique I first heard about from my editor on  Widow Woman and developed further using the book Write In Style: Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing by Bobbie Christmas. (Haven’t read this book yet? Get it. It’s an unbelievably helpful way to eliminate wordiness, annoying tics, etc.)

Once I get past those phases, I’ll do one to two more substantive passes and really zero in on fleshing out characters, tightening up the plot, focusing on tension and engagement–all those things that I hope will keep readers turning the page.

Once everything else is done, I’ll do a final spelling and grammar check via my computer. (Is that really necessary, you might ask? Believe me, if you’re asking, it’s necessary. Does a computerized spell check catch everything? No. Don’t computer spell checks sometimes misinterpret the writer’s intent and suggest the wrong word? Of course–they’re computers, not people; you don’t just blindly accept every change they recommend. But every once in a while, the computer will catch something your eye has missed, even after all those passes, so yes, you’ve got the tool, use it. )

Then, and only then, I will finally consider it ready for beta readers (the next phase in the process). I will be looking for volunteers, so be ready. I promise, there are far fewer sharp objects involved in that phase.

A Book in the Oven

it isn't done yet

See disclaimer below

You may remember that on September 30, 2014, I finished the first draft of my second novel (working title: The Water Bearers). Ahh, such a production—a champagne toast, a video post. I even added a doomsday clock to my homepage to make sure that I met my self-imposed deadline.

And what have you heard about this much-vaunted book since then?

[crickets chirping]

That’s right, not a single damned thing. I’m truly sorry if you’re disappointed by the apparent lack of any further activity on my part, but this period of “inactivity” after completing a first draft is not only a normal part of the writing adventure, it’s also a healthy part of it.

cookie 2

Come on, you know you want one…

Do you bake? I don’t, except for The World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies. (I didn’t invent the title; I just wear the crown). But even I know that bread dough has to rest for a while before you bake it (Thank you to The King—Stephen, that is—for this metaphor). A manuscript is no different—it needs a period of rest, just as King Stephen says in his wonderful cookbook, On Writing:

You’ve done a lot of work and you need a period of time (how much or how little depends on the individual writer) to rest…How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneadings—is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks…With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll…be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development.

Who am I to buck royal advice? I’ve been doing exactly what Stephen King recommended: getting involved in new projects and re-involved in my day-to-day life, completely and utterly ignoring the completed manuscript waiting patiently on my desktop. Not just because The King says so, but also because I worked hard on it; it deserves to have me return to it with a fresh and ready mind; and because the next phase, editing, will be ugly (for me, it usually involves sharp objects, cursing, and tears, though I do try to keep bloodshed to an absolute minimum).

So—King’s prescribed minimum of six weeks, if we count from September 30, would have me resuming work on The Water Bearers around November 11. Will that be the day? Perhaps—or perhaps I will extend my hiatus to seven, or even eight weeks. The important thing is not, at least at this stage, to assign a random date on the calendar, but rather to know, in your writerly heart, that it’s time. How do you that? Well, it’s your lucky day, because The King’s got an answer for that question, too:

If it [your manuscript] looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready…If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience…it will also be like reading the work of someone else…This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own. 

300px-Macintosh_128k_transparencyOkay, that whole alien relic bit may be a tricky visual for most of us to replicate, with today’s ubiquitous digital versions (unless you wrote it on one of these), but King’s message is pretty clear: You have to allow yourself enough time away that you not only fall in love with your manuscript all over again, but also feel enough distance between you that you can go on and destroy that which needs destroying–a crazy balancing act virtually impossible to achieve in the rosy afterglow of initial completion.

So—if it seems as though there’s been a whole lot of nuthin’ going on since I wrote “The End,” never fear: There’s been a whole lot of proofing going on, and it’s not quite done yet. But don’t worry—when the time is right and I finally break out the power tools and get back to work, you’ll be the first to know.

Disclaimer: That psychedelic cat above? Don’t you believe a word he says, he’s a Bad Kitty. Go right ahead and keep asking me–I like it.

Literary Citizenship: Different Strokes for Different Folks

DCOn a beautiful fall day last weekend, a group of writers, editors, publishers, poets, and agents gathered in Washington, D.C. for the third Poets & Writers Live event. I was fortunate enough to be one of them.

PWLiveThe panel discussions were substantive and witty, featuring industry veterans willingly and openly sharing resources, tips, challenges, and advice. Some of it, thanks to numerous other writers’ events I’ve attended, I’d already heard in some form before. But one of the things that really reached out and hooked me was a comment by Melissa Faliveno, associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the concept of literary citizenship.

This is not a new term. It’s been around for several years, and like most “movements,” it’s had its share of supporters and detractors as the definition has continued to evolve. Not familiar with the term yet? Well, the Renegade Writers’ Collective out of Vermont features a helpful and pithy description of literary citizens on its website. Some of it I agree with (I would never burn books, love nothing more than to sink my teeth into a hefty semicolon debate, and I do, in fact, wear sunglasses, almost on a daily basis). But some of their definition calls to mind the sort of obnoxious and affected writerly types one occasionally encounters: You know, the ones you sort of want to yell at or smack upside the head with your Moleskine: “Stop it! Drinking bourbon and staring pensively at the sidewalk for an hour does not make you a writer!” If writing wedding toasts in iambic pentameter and eating sushi are the requirements for literary citizenship then I guess I’m one big, happy expatriate.

Seriously, though, some folks in the literary world have been getting really worked up about the term of late. Check out writer Becky Tuch’s take on the concept. For her, literary citizenship seems to be less about your identity as an individual writer, à la Vermont, and more about your obligations as a member of the collective society of writers–and she doesn’t seem to view those as necessarily a good thing, either:

I really detest the phrase “Literary Citizenship”…By evoking such positive qualities as citizenship and community-mindedness, the message behind Literary Citizenship seems to be that writers should embrace this new dawn. We should accept it, perhaps even celebrate it. In doing more work (editing manuscripts, reviewing books, interviewing writers, blogging about writing, sharing news about books, etc.) for less pay, we will become good citizens.

Okay, I get it—but to me, Ms. Tuch’s conceptualization of literary citizenship, as stated here, seems to be driven more by the fact that we writers are being told we have to do more and more for less and less in order to achieve even a modicum of success, than about the fact that in the process, we’re forming a community of good citizens. More for less certainly is an undeniable fact of the writerly life as we know it today—and it’s a fact that sucks. But why be such a strong detractor of something that is essentially a good thing?

She explains why she detests the phrase:

It’s just that in all this talk about what makes a good Literary Citizen, it seems we have missed a key step: critical reflection. Isn’t it important to ask why things are the way they are? The notion that the system ought to be challenged, that there is even a system within which all this is operating, is notably absent from discussions about being a good Literary Citizen.

I can’t argue with that, either. Critical reflection and repair of broken or faulty systems are awesome, and as she continues supporting her argument with suggestions about the need for writers’ unions and strikes, one can see that her view of literary citizenship is a very serious one, indeed.

But for me, these interpretations, while perfectly valid and demanding of reflection, simply weren’t capturing the yearning in my heart at the very words “literary citizen.” So—let’s return to Room LJ-119 at the Library of Congress this past weekend. Here is what Ms. F had to say about it, as paraphrased from my notes:

“Literary citizenship [can be defined as] an author’s ability and willingness to promote not only himself and his own work but also to support and promote other writers.”


Simple, succinct, and sweet.

Now that I get. I not only get it, I’ve seen it in action: at the Bloomington Writers Festival in Minnesota year after year; in my writing group there, that still supports me and lets me participate, even though I now live hundreds of miles away; and again, this weekend, at Poets & Writers Live and, especially, during the lunch break with some of my fellow attendees.

We were all at different stages in our literary journeys: Some of us had finished, but not yet published manuscripts; some of us were just starting to write our stories; some of us had books about to be published. But everyone, every single one of us, had something, some advice or tip or insight or question or fear, to bring to the table, and as a group, we collectively addressed them.

We weren’t a union, trying to change a difficult system; we weren’t throwing back bourbons or dissecting metaphors (maybe next time). We were a respectful, open, like-minded and passionate group of people who understood, instinctively and organically, that what we really need, in a profession that entails spending so much time alone and that, at its core, can be fundamentally competitive, is each other.

Maybe my take on it is not institutional enough for some folks; maybe it’s too grassroots.

But to me, this is what literary citizenship is all about: finding ways to take your experience, your network, your connections, and using your knowledge to support others. Are you an aspiring writer? Reach out to others (reach out to me!) who can answer your questions, steer you to helpful resources, lift your spirits when your work is rejected and celebrate with you when your work goes live.

Perhaps you’re at the other end of the spectrum, a grizzled veteran, and feel like you don’t have the time or interest or see sufficient ROI potential to reach out to those just starting out. Remember that you, too, were once an unpublished, struggling author, and how important it was for you to have someone reach out a hand to help you. Giving back feels good.

Or maybe, like me, you’re somewhere in between the two, not quite just starting out, but no blockbuster author (YET, of course), either. I didn’t think I’d have much to contribute that my fellow writers didn’t already know—but I was amazed at how many questions I was able to answer at lunch on Saturday. Doing so not only felt really good (that must be the former teacher in me), but it was also, to be frank, a tremendous confidence booster, as it forced me to reflect on just how far I have come since I began.

We all know more than we think we do.

Ultimately, we all have to define the word citizenship for ourselves: This is mine.

Do you agree?

Then write. Get the words out there, then go forth and support someone else, because we need each other, and it is by helping each other that we all become strong.


For more information on being a good literary citizen, check out





Ta Da! The End!

[Video Transcript]

You know, writing is a very solitary and grungy business, and most of the time, even on your best, most wonderful writing days, you’re usually alone.

But today is a really special day for this writer.

As many of you know, I have been working on my first draft of my second novel, The Water Bearers, for several years now and earlier this month, I set up a deadline for myself, that I would finish that first draft by the date of my birthday (which is actually, as it happens, coming up the day after tomorrow).

Well, I’m happy to say that I have actually reached that milestone and today, I wanted to share it with you.

So bear with me. You get to share this with me today. Bear with me, I’m not a camera person. Here we go. Are you ready? One, two, three–Ta da! I did it!

Of course, as any writer knows, the first draft is just that: It’s a first draft. There’s much more work to be done in terms of editing and polishing it and making it worthy of publication. So I’m not foolish enough to think that my work over here is done.

But I think that today, I’m just going to savor the moment and celebrate the completion of this part of the process–all 405 pages of it. It’ll probably be a lot shorter than that when it’s finished, but today, I’m just going to enjoy. So–Cheers!


Counting Down!

countdown clockAs I mentioned in my last post, I’m getting close to finishing the first draft of my second novel, The Water Bearers. [Cue applause. No, seriously, click here to make the applause start.] I’ve been working on it intermittently for years, so seeing it finally come to a close (at least the shitty first-draft stage of it) is pretty exciting.

But I also know that, as it is for many writers, procrastinating–even this close to the finish line–remains a hazard. Therefore, I’ve set up a countdown clock to try to keep myself accountable. I invite you to check back in, follow my progress, and help me count down to (for writers, anyway) those two most magical words in the English language: The End. And hey, as long as you’re here, I wouldn’t kick a few kind words of support to the curb, either. Just sayin’…

In the meantime, as a thank-you for all your support and patience, here’s the excerpt I promised; I hope it leaves you wanting to read more. But if it doesn’t, just remember what Ernest Hemingway said:

1st draft shit


And now for your excerpt:


The Water Bearers


The noise shook the car and jolted Bibi awake.  As her eyes flew open, she could see the window had been smashed. The pocket of air around her face held for a moment more. Bibi had time to take one last gulp of air then the pocket collapsed. Thousands of gallons of water roared through the broken window all at once, throwing Bibi back against the car door and pinning her there.

Still holding her breath, Bibi tried to free herself from the pressure of the water’s onslaught, tried to turn her head to see where her father and Sabrina were—but couldn’t. The realization that they might already have died terrified her.

—Moby? Moby? Are you there? Are you there?

Over and over in her mind, Bibi called out to Moby; there was no reply. Her chest constricted rapidly as her need for air grew more desperate. Her head started to pound under the relentless pressure of the water that now completely filled the car.

I don’t want to die like this, she thought. I didn’t even get to go back to school yet.

The car gave a terrific jerk, then a second. Bibi squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating solely on keeping the last bit of air in her lungs. Her entire body was pulsing now, a frenzied rhythm hammering through her veins: Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, BREATHE—

She did, at last. Her mouth wrenched itself open against her will and every molecule of air that had ever existed vanished. Painfully cold water filled her mouth, her throat, and her lungs, burning as she gulped and swallowed convulsively. Bibi thrashed wildly, helpless to stop herself from breathing, drawing the icy water deeper and deeper into her chest. Her flailing grew weaker. A sudden wave of brilliant clarity stilled her limbs, and Bibi understood that she was about to die.

Daddy! Da—she called silently to her father.

Then Bibi’s world went black once again.


All This Nothing–A New Experience

back-to-school-sad-2It’s that time of year again: Back to School at last. My house is quiet and empty and my writer’s brain is (normally) noisy and overflowing, itching to return to serious productivity.

Normally—but not today.

Today, my house is, indeed, quiet and empty, but my writer’s brain is AWOL. In its place is a weepy and very sappy mother’s heart making a mess all over my keyboard. What gives?

I’ve had all three kids in school before, so there’s nothing new there. None of them is off to college: They’ll all come home to me this afternoon, (hopefully) bubbling over with First Day tales and inhaling everything remotely edible, so there’s nothing new there.

A little light reading

A little light reading

I have plenty to do: a grant to write; a novel to finish; short stories to edit for submissions; my own homework to start reading for my next class (check out that stack); errands to run; a fridge to clean—nope, nothing new there, either.

And yet, for all that nothing, I somehow feel lost. Maybe that, that right there, is my problem—all this nothing.


I’m not accustomed to this type of First Day feeling at all. I’m usually the mom you’d see at the bus stop, turning cartwheels of joy as the bus pulled away. I’m usually the mom with a mile-long list of all the things she was going to do that first day to celebrate being free at last to do them, at her own pace, without interruptions, to the soundtrack of her own choosing (Hello, ABBA! God, how I missed you!), all while singing along at the top of her lungs.

But today, I don’t feel like singing (though I probably will, something like “Slipping Through My Fingers,” or “All By Myself,” à la Bridget Jones). I don’t feel like doing anything on my list; all I feel like doing is crawling back into bed.

So, as I often do, I’m turning to my writing to try to work this thing out (and maybe kick start some productivity in the process). Mea culpa, dear readers.

It’s been one hour since they left for school, and yes, I miss my kids already. I’m also, I’m embarrassed to admit, worrying about them as much on this first day back to school as I did on the days when they each began kindergarten: Are they making new friends? Are their teachers being cool? Will they eat enough at lunch? Did we get the right supplies? What if they forget their locker combinations? Did I tell them everything they needed to know?

What the hell is wrong with me? What a sap I have become.

It’s just that summer went by so fast this year. We did cross off a lot of summer bucket-list items, but there are things I still wanted to say to them before they left. Of course, they’re things we’ve taught them all their lives, but they’re important things. They’re things that bear repeating; things I hope they’ll remember; things I hope they’ll do every day at school [hell, everywhere, and for the rest of their lives]; things I really want them to know, like—

Be kind.

Be respectful.

Be patient.

Be open-minded.

Be helpful.

Use your time wisely.

Work hard.

Play hard.

Rest hard.

Take turns—yes, that’s still something you should do as an adult, and yes, some adults still haven’t learned it, as you can see at any traffic circle or construction merge.

Stand up for yourself.

Stand up for others.

Take responsibility for your actions.

Practice the art of compromise, but don’t let people take advantage of you.

Swimming with the current may get you places faster and easier. Sometimes that works out great, but sometimes, those places aren’t where you wanted to go. Don’t be afraid to swim against the current; it’ll be harder, but it’s worth the fight to get to where you want to be.

Give your teachers a chance. They became teachers because they wanted to help young people find success. Help them do it.

Treat others—your classmates, your friends, your teammates, random kids in the hall, teachers, custodians—exactly how you want to be treated.

Don’t accept boredom, but don’t use misbehavior—your own or others’—as a way to end it. Exploit your boredom: Engage with your teachers and with your classmates. Ask questions. Pay attention. Raise your hand.

Accept that challenges, mistakes, and downright failures are opportunities for growth—it is in how we respond to them that we learn who we are—and how strong we are.

Ask for help.

Don’t be afraid to be first.

Don’t be afraid to be last.

Don’t let what other people might think about you affect your decisions: you are the one who has to live with their consequences.

Don’t give up. Two steps forward and one step back is still forward progress.

Don’t use the accomplishments or failures of others as a yardstick for your own. You can’t do someone else’s best, you can only do your best, and you should strive for that every day.

Never tell yourself, “I already know enough.” There is no such thing.

"What do you mean, there's no more coffee?"

“What do you mean, there’s no more coffee?”

I could, you see, go on for much longer here, but—as often happens—setting my fingers to the keyboard has already eased my soul (plus, it’s made my butt numb, my bladder full, and my coffee cup empty). And…woohoo! I just realized that there are only five more hours until the kids get home, so if I’m going to get anything on my mile-long list done today, I’d better get moving; after all, this list isn’t going to get any shorter…







Hot off the Presses!

Is there anything more exciting for a writer than the day you actually get to hold a published piece of your work in your hot, little hands? Maybe it’s a magazine; maybe it’s a web piece, and you just have to content yourself with lasciviously stroking your screen. Some days, though, it’s an actual, real-life BOOK. 

Well, dear readers, today’s another one of those days for me, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with my newly-arrived, absolutely gorgeous copy of Love + Lust, the final book in the Open to Interpretation series:

L+L 1

Ahhh. If I still smoked, I’d say I need a cigarette, but since I don’t anymore, a good, long “Ahhh” will have to suffice. Go ahead, open it up! There it is, right there on page 71, my story “The Navigator,” inspired by a beautiful photo from the very talented photographer,  Jennifer McClure.


I cannot wait to sit down with this gorgeous book, to gaze at all the stunning images therein and to lose myself in the amazing poetry and prose of the other writers chosen for this collection. I am humbled, honored, and, frankly, ridiculously excited, at having been included in their midst.


But don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll get over it (hahaha, yeah, right). For now, I’m just going to savor the moment. You see, days like this come few and far between, especially for indie writers, so please forgive me if you see me milking this one for every ounce of joy that it’s worth–it could be a long time until the next one.

My heartfelt thanks for this particular moment go to Aline Smithson, the photography judge; Dorianne Laux, the writing judge; and Open to Interpretation’s Clare O’Neill, who invited me to submit my piece. Thank you for including me, thank you for the exquisite book you’ve created, and Ahhhh. You have no idea how much I needed this today.

[To order your copy, visit http://www.open2interpretation.com/purchase.html, but be patient–they’re currently sold out, tee hee!)

Walking the Past

TARDIS2 by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Zir

TARDIS2 by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Zir

Earlier this month, I received an extraordinary gift: a trip back in time. Oh, it wasn’t a Tardis and I didn’t really time-travel, although that would have been really cool—it just felt like I did.

When I first met my husband, we were college freshmen, just starting off the year. We happened to live on the same floor of the same dorm, and right from the start, we knew This Was It. We lived, and dated, there for three years, moved into awful off-campus housing, married after graduation, are raising three wonderful kids, and just celebrated our twenty-first wedding anniversary.

It’s been a very good life, a very happy one, and in general, I’ve never looked back—until this spring, when we learned that the dorm where it all began was about to be demolished (to make way for, what else, a parking lot or a thru-street or whatever). Suddenly, looking back seemed not only like a good thing to do, but also a moral imperative. So on a trip back to visit our families nearby, we decided to squeeze in a road trip with our kids, to show them our old stomping grounds—and to say goodbye.

We didn’t know what stage of the building’s demolition awaited us. Personally, I thought I’d just be really happy if we could snap a picture of us in front of the building sign, a bookend to one taken of us a few weeks after we first started dating.

We drove slowly on our way to campus but the conversation was lively: our kids, generally pretty uninterested in any stories prior to their births, were suddenly filled with questions about our early days together, and my husband and I happily answered them, laughing, squeezing hands, and exchanging knowing smiles at carefully-censored details.

As we turned onto the street where our dorm had stood so many years before, I couldn’t yet see if it was standing or not. In the years since we’d graduated, the university had erected large columns and now-mature trees that blocked the old wide-open view, and I found I was holding my breath.

There! There it was, still standing. I couldn’t help it—I actually squealed and my kids erupted with teasing laughter. My husband parked the car and I practically skipped across the street to the old dorm sign. Building and sign had not changed a bit. We posed again with the sign, letting our daughter snap some pictures, and marveling at the changes that had sprung up around our old building (artfully ignoring the changes time has wrought with us): the enlarged rec center kitty-corner from it; the upgraded stadium across the street; the new athletics practice facility. It was a surreal mix of the very old and the very new, and the silence of a summer-empty college campus only served to heighten the feeling that Time had graciously decided to stop for a few hours and let us wander around in peace.

We were, indeed, planning on strolling around the rest of the campus next—visiting the rec center where we both worked; hunting for an establishment that would serve us our beer nuggetsmuch-loved and much-missed beer nuggets; stopping at the campus bookstore to pick up some university gear—but then my husband suggested we walk around the front of the dorm.



Assuming we’d just stop at the entrance and snap a few pictures there, I followed my family around to the two sets of double steel doors we’d walked through so many times during the three years we lived there.

One set was chained.

The other was not.

We saw no signs about condemnation, no warnings against trespassing, no contractors busy dismantling our past. So my husband tried the door.

It was open.

Well, what would you have done? Probably the same thing we did, which was to creep inside the building, looking around for signs of security or construction crews or campus police (not our first time doing that on that campus). But the place was deserted.

So we began to wander. With each step, my heart pounded harder, a delicious combination of the fear that someone would stop us and the thrill of long-forgotten memories thundering through me.

Every step, every breath, every turn, brought another memory, and we marveled at the most prosaic of items—our kids must have thought we were nuts.

mailboxes“Hey, here’s my old mailbox!”

“Remember these stairs? God, how many times did we trudge up and down these.”

“Look! The cafeteria!” (We assured them, we were never that excited to see it when we were students—well, except when we were making out in the line before dinner. That was pretty exciting.)

We made our way up the stairs, constantly waiting for someone to stop us, to tell us we didn’t belong here, but the continued silence and lack of pursuit only solidified our feeling that we did—we did belong here, at least once upon a time.

As we reached the security door to our floor, one of two that, since my room was so close to it, I had to open a gazillion times for neighbors who’d forgotten their keys, I held my breath again. Surely this would be where our tour stopped; in three years, that door had never been left unlocked. But once again, it was, miraculously, open, an all-access invitation to enter.

We stepped through the door, and in the absolute, empty stillness of the hallway, I suddenly felt we were stepping on hallowed ground.

Crappy artwork, some of which we recognized from our days, still adorned the walls, preserved under plexiglass plates screwed into the walls; obviously, it had been deemed unworthy of rescue by the salvage crews who had already cleaned out everything else in the building of possible value or hazard.

The room doors were just the same: heavy, thick, still painted the same ugly green, but with one new feature: large, penciled X’s slashed across each door—This Room Is Clean. (Well, empty, at least—what decades-old college dorm room could ever be called clean?)

Ghosts met us at every turn, faces we hadn’t seen in years, and as we described their antics to our kids—and some of our own, though not all, wink, wink—I could almost hear them coming back to life all around me. Thumping music; the heavy, thunk-slam of the security door; the constant thrum and hum of youth and energy and The Future rose up like a mist from the very floor. My kids blamed it on the odor of stale, spilled beer and unwashed college bodies. They were partly right, but only partly: I knew it was The Past, walking beside us.

NIU roomWhen we came to the door of my husband’s room, he paused, took my hand, and gave me a wicked grin.

“Remember this?” he asked. I could almost hear my kids gagging behind me. Oh, to have had a few minutes alone right then. But I just smiled.

Yes. Yes, I remember.

We showed the kids inside our rooms, agreeing with them that they were ridiculously small; that the rickety plastic doors on the closets were crappy; that the towel racks mounted inside the cabinet doors over the radiators—for “drying” your towels after your trip to the communal [Ick, was our kids’ consensus] showers—were hilarious by today’s standards; that squeezing two roommates into rooms that size amounted to a human rights violation.

But inside, we were remembering other things: the day my husband first kissed my hand; rare, lazy afternoons crammed up against each other in his tiny dorm bed, watching classic movies (some days it was Action Jackson; some days it was The Quiet Man) on his cutting-edge VCR; late-night sprints to the lobby, three dollars in hand, to catch the beer nugget truck before it pulled away; idyllic between-class hours, hours and hours, filled with exuberant, greedy, young love.

Yes, I remember.

As our time (and our kids’  kind indulgence) ran out, we finally headed down to leave the building. Though worrying that someone would stop us or arrest us for trespassing, I stopped and took one long last look back. Knowing with 100% certitude that, unlike the last time I left this building “for the last time,” I would never see this place again, I offered up—what, a prayer? A silent thank-you?—to whatever powers that were that day, my heart full of gratitude at having been allowed to cross that threshold of time again, to walk those floors, to feel those feelings, to remember those now-halcyon days of our extreme youth. It was an unparalleled gift, one I hope never to forget, long after the day arrives when only a road or a parking lot covers the place where so much of my life began.

Goodbye, and thanks for the memories.

Douglas Hall cropped 2