Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Greetings for 2012

Today, I feel deep-down gratitude for all of you who have so faithfully read my two blogs—the one I began in 2011 and this one on writing. Thank you for your ongoing support and encouragement through your comments and good wishes. Your generous friendship has lifted my spirits during a year when I find myself musing about what next to do with my writing.
         Before reading my Christmas wish for you, which is a repost of last year's Yule prayer on my coming-home blog, you may like to listen to one of my favorite Christmas carols: The Shepherd’s Pipe Carol. At the end of the posting, I’ve inserted another favorite: Pat-A-Pan.

To all of you from South Africa to Great Britain
to the far-flung states of the Northwest and California
to Canada and Florida,
the Southwest and the Midwest,
Boston and Cleveland,
and all the toasty homes in between,

I wish you a Chanukah filled to brimming with merriment,
a Christmas heart-deep in peace,
a Boxing Day sparkled with laughter,  
a Kwanzaa candlelit by joy,
and a year’s ending
that finds you content
with your life and its gifts.

Ellie, Maggie, and Matthew
have asked me to convey their gratitude to all of you.
Now that I’ve joined the family of bloggers,
I no longer disturb their naps with play.
For this, they give thanks
even as they hunker by the patio doors,
gnashing their teeth and chirruping
at winter birds and squirrels feasting on sunflower seeds.

Those three scamps,
one as inquisitive as a young sleuth,
join me in wishing you a new year filled
with possibilities for growth in the human spirit.

May you enter the new year merrily
and come to its end in good health,
your lives enriched with friendship
and your spirits enfolded
in the Holy Oneness of All Creation.

You and I,
the three felines observing me type,
and all your cherished animals
are part of that Oneness.
We are the essence of One.

Peace as ever and always.

Postscript: I won’t be posting next Sunday as a friend is coming to visit. Deborah and I met when we arrived at Mount Saint Scholastica College in 1954 as bemused freshmen. After our sophomore year, she entered the Mount convent. Two years later, after graduation, I entered. I stayed only eight and a half years, but she has stayed all this time—fifty-six years now. We have remained good friends and the prospect of her visit makes me just a little giddy! Peace.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bopping Along with Spelling

Two Sundays ago, I blogged about my auditory learning disability and how that affected my ability to spell. As long as I had a speller with a list of words in it to memorize each week in grade school, I could fairly well ace the spelling test each Friday. That changed in high school. For the first three years there was no spelling. Then, in my senior year, I signed up for English Literature.
         Studying the English poets, essayists, dramatists, and novelists from the Anglo-Saxon period up to the early twentieth century enthralled me. I’d always been passionate about reading. So studying English lit seemed like daily entering “seventh heaven.”
         Well, that’s not quite the truth. The literature transported me to celestial realms, but Sister Mary Rosaria’s insistence on spelling didn’t.  Each day she’d assign us a reading from the lit book. The next day she’d begin the classroom period with a quiz of ten words she’d chosen from the text we’d read.

         We never knew what those words would be and sometimes the text was so erudite that I simply couldn’t memorize all the words that might appear on her list. I couldn’t divide unfamiliar words into syllables and sound them out, much less pronounce them. I simply saw a word that I didn’t know and mostly figured out its meaning in context. So when she said a word, it was coded. That is, I often had no idea as to what letter started the word, much less what letters followed.
         Sister Mary Rosaria strode up and down the aisles, declaiming each of the ten words. I scribbled a group of letters on the paper. I didn’t even know then what a syllable was or that each syllable in the English language used a vowel. 
         She completed her list, then continued striding as she spelled the words correctly for us. We determined our score and gave it to her to record in her grading book. She strode as she recording our grades.
         Sometimes, all the words eluded me: 0 out of 10. Sometimes, I conquered as many as 3. That was cause for celebration on my part.
         But not so for Sister Rosaria. Each day, she doggedly called my name: “Dolores. What today?” I gave her my score. Immediately, she rounded the aisle and strode to where I sat. Muttering all the while, she rolled her sheaf of papers into a cylinder and bopped me on the head with it.
         Sometimes exasperation overtook her, and she continued to bop my shoulders and upper arms. I ducked, but her aim was good and it was only paper, so nothing but my pride was injured.
         To appreciate just how poor a speller I was, you need to know that in our class of twenty-six, I ended up being the valedictorian. So it’s not surprising that Sister Mary Rosaria suspected I was being contrary each day by doing so poorly on the spelling quiz.
         “Stop fooling around, Dolores! What was your real grade?”
         “I got one right.”
         “You’re mocking me! Tomorrow I expect 100 percent from you.”
         I did try, but to no avail. I had a good reading vocabulary and if I didn’t know what a word in the text meant by considering its context, I’d look it up. But I still didn’t understand how to say the word because I couldn’t interpret the pronunciation squiggles in the dictionary.
         I didn’t have a good speaking vocabulary because I had no idea how to attack new words and say them correctly. Whenever an adult said I word I didn’t know, I’d ask her or him to spell it. Then I’d memorize the letters in order and know that when I saw those letters they were pronounced the way that person had pronounced them.
         Of course, if the original person pronounced the word incorrectly, then I still do so today, even if someone has corrected my pronunciation. Once a word is rutted in my mind, I can’t seem to change it.
         To this day, I’ll hear a word and realize from its context that I’m hearing how to pronounce a word I know from my reading but have never known how it sounded when said aloud. And so I frequently ask people to spell a word for me that they’ve said and I memorize it so I can use it in writing. And in speech as well.
         And yet. And yet. I have been an editor for forty-five years. And a successful one at that.  Who can explain the vagaries of life? 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Researching and Writing a Novel

As you know from my past postings, I’ve completed the manuscript for a historical novel entitled The Reluctant Spy. During the thirteen years I’ve worked on this manuscript, it’s gone through four incarnations. The first version—written in the late ’90s and entitled “Who Is He for You?”—was a series of monologues spoken by the characters who peopled the Gospel of Luke. Friends described these monologues as “spiritual reflections” or a “devotional” book. No viable novel here.

Ancient Gospel manuscript page.

            In 2001-2002, those reflections became “almost a novel,” when I introduced a character named Ephraim. The twenty-seven monologues became its ribs. Ephraim’s crisis of faith was the musculature holding those ribs together.
            A wondrously kind editor, Susan Tobias, praised the writing, but turned down the manuscript, which was entitled “The Jesus Interviews.” She said that it was too predictable because most people know what happened to Jesus. Moreover, the manuscript too closely followed his life as an itinerant preacher.
            Judy Koll Healey, a friend and published historical novelist, helped me understand what I needed: dramatic tension. She noted that the manuscript was about a man finding his way with the focus on the way. To create a novel, I needed to focus on the man.
            It took me the rest of 2002 to understand what Judy was trying to tell me and to devise a plot that would put Ephraim squarely into a dramatic situation that would reveal the depths of his character and his struggle through a crisis of faith. To do that, I had to move away from Jesus and let the manuscript become Ephraim’s story.

            In 2003, while writing version three—“The Yeshua Spy: The Plot to Kill Jesus”—I had trouble with Jesus, whom I was now calling Yeshua (his Jewish name). He tried to take over the second half of the book. I had to wrestle the manuscript away from him in order to keep the dramatic tension and suspense provided by Ephraim. Readers know what happens to Yeshua, but not to Ephraim who is wholly fictitious. It was in Ephraim that I had to find the story arc that would keep readers reading.
            After completing this third version, I asked Vince Skemp, a professor at the College of Saint Catherine in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to read the manuscript and advise me as to its authenticity. While helping me realize how little I really knew of the first century and Yeshua’s Jewishness, Vince thoughtfully provided me with an extensive reading list. The books on that list impelled me to write the fourth incarnation: The Reluctant Spy.
            Wanting to steep myself in first-century Judaism, I spent most of 2004 and 2005 reading Jewish and Christian biblical scholars. However, The Reluctant Spy is a novel, and I’ve taken many liberties in presenting Ephraim the Pharisee, Daniel the Sadducee, Chaviva the Jewish wife, John the Baptizer, Yeshua of Nazareth, Hashem the Almighty, and Miryam of Magdala.

Icon of Mary Magdalene.

            One such liberty involves Hanina ben Dosa, a first-century Jewish Hasid. A real person, he was born about ten years after Yeshua. However, for purposes of the novel, I had him be a contemporary of Yeshua. Another liberty I’ve taken enables Ephraim to travel freely throughout the Galilee without worrying about the purity laws embraced by the Pharisees.
            If this manuscript—the fourth attempt to “get it right”—ever gets published, the biblical scholars I read may not recognize their own expertise. Yet what they wrote inspired me with a desire to show Yeshua as both Jew and human being: a man who walked the roads of the Galilee and believed that Hashem called him to proclaim the kingdom.
            My reading also dramatically changed the bias I’d always had against the Pharisees. The Gospels present them in a negative light because of the times in which the evangelists wrote. Modern scholarship has definitively shown that the ordinary people of Palestine in the first century of the Common Era admired and respected the Pharisees, a small group of devout Jews who sought to make holy their own actions for the good of their people.
            Among the books I read, the following proved most helpful in understanding the Pharisees, Judaism of the first century of the Common Era, and Yeshua as a Jew: Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen; Jesus the Pharisee by Hyam Maccoby; The Historical Figure of Jesus, Jesus and Judaism, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, and Judaism by E. P. Sanders; and Jesus in His Jewish Context, Jesus the Jew, and The Religion of Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes.
            For the Epilogue, I relied on Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. In it, I discovered what might have happened to Ephraim late in his life. Several other scholars provided food for thought as I tried to put myself back in the time in which Yeshua lived. I also consulted multiple reference books for names, maps, Roman and Jewish culture, and biblical background.

The Galilee circa 50 CE.

            All this research took time. Writing, editing, and polishing the manuscript has taken more time. And now—in December of 2012, thirteen years after I began working on this proposed novel—has come the time of looking for an agent. 
             Next Sunday, I’ll share with you what searching for a literary agent entails and what’s happening with my own search, which began this past Monday. Are any of you seeking representation from an agent? If so, I'd so like to read what's happening in your search.

Postscript: I just reread last Sunday's posting and realized that I'd said that this Sunday I'd tell you about my spelling woes in high school. Oophs. When I sat down to write today's post, I totally forgot that commitment. So next Sunday, I'll post on spelling and the nun who said, "Stop putting me on, Dolores!" Then I'll return to researching background for novels and writing them.

All art and maps from Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Spelling and a Christmas Book Fair

This posting today has two parts. Please visit both of them!

Part I—Spelling
As an editor who’s spoken to high school students, I’ve heard several say,  “I couldn’t edit because I can’t recognize a misspelled word” or “I can’t write because I’m a lousy speller.”
         I’m the editor/writer who disproves those theories. Because of an auditory learning disability, I am an extremely poor speller, and yet I both edit and write.
         About thirty years ago, I met a professional who tested children experiencing problems with reading. After determining that I had an auditory learning disability, she expressed amazement at my memory. Here’s what she found mindboggling:
         From kindergarten through third grade, I missed three months out of the nine of each school year. So I never learned to sound out words. I knew the names of the alphabet letters, but I didn't know that each letter had its own sound. Nor did I ever learn that words had syllables and each syllable had a vowel within it.
         In grade school we had spelling books. Each week we learned how to spell twenty new words. Each night—Monday through Thursday—I would memorize five of those words. Mom would point to one, let’s say winter, and say aloud the word those letters represented.

         I didn't know that the letter beginning the word represented the sound of w. For me, the word winter could be spelled egtyrhgwt. It wasn’t a series of melded sounds; it was an arrangement of randomly chosen letters someone in the far distant past had put together.
         I didn't recognize the sound of individual letters or syllables. Mom had said, “winter” and pointed to the letters. So for me the configuration of the letters w-i-n-t-e-r was said as “winter.” It never occurred to me that in that word are two syllables win- and –ter. Or that win is the sound of a w and an i and an n melded together.
         I memorized the configuration of the letters w-i-n-t-e-r and whenever I saw this entity in a sentence or on a Wheaties box or in a headline I knew that I was seeing the letters that represented the word winter.
         Throughout grade school, I memorized all the words this way. They were not a combination of melded sounds of the letters of the alphabet. They were simply an arrangement of letters that someone—I didn’t know who—had decided would be said a certain way.

         All was well as long as the spelling test each Friday was based on the twenty words in the speller. My memory was good and I could remember the shape of the connected letters when Sister Mary Anne or Sister Corita or Sister Mary McCauley said it. If the pronounced word was winter then my mind saw an arrangement of letters from the alphabet:

1.    a small letter toward the end of the alphabet—w
2.    another small letter—i—that was the only one with a dot over it
3.    a letter from the middle of the alphabet—n
4.    a tall letter—t—toward the end of the alphabet
5.    another small letter that in the alphabet was to the right of the first letter of my name
6.    a final letter that was the first letter of my last name 

My mind quickly came up with the shape, arrangement, configuration, structure of the word winter—it was like a landscape covered with snow except for a tall tree in the middle. That, of course, was the letter t.

         All this worked well for me for eight years. Then came high school and everything fell apart. I’ll share that with you next Sunday. Between now and then, I’m wondering if any of you had trouble, or have trouble, with spelling.

All photos by Dan from

Part 2—The Wayman Press Christmas Book Fair

In the spring of this year, Wayman Press offered to publish A Cat’s Legacy, formerly entitled Twelve Habits of Highly Successful Cats and Their Humans. I will be forever grateful that Dulcy’s companion book to A Cat’s Life now has its own life.
         And so today I feel privileged to be part of the Wayman Press Three-Day Christmas Book Fair, which offers over eighty e-books, several of them free. 
         Two of my books are on that list of eighty. Also, I wrote a short story—a  cat fantasy—for Open Doors: An Anthology, which is being offered as a free choice. The story is entitled “The Mesmerizing Monk.” It is from a feline fantasy which I am writing.
          Below is the information provided by Wayman for this book fair.

A socially conscious press, Wayman is dedicated to helping those in need. Much of the profit from the following anthology will be donated to Primary Children's Hospital in the form of Christmas gifts we'll bring to the long-term patients staying there.

Welcome to the Christmas Book Fair!

Wayman publishing has teamed up
with many phenomenal authors
to bring you this December weekend event.

For three whole days
--December 2-3-4--
you can find these

e-books for great prices.

. . . And . . .

Most of the profit from Wayman Publishing's books (12/1-12/20) will be donated to those in need!

Discover Upcoming and Recently Released Books!
A Cat's Legacy
Newly Released Cover!
A Cat's Legacy: Dulcy's Story 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Sydney's Song by Ia Uaro

Sydney's Song

by Ia Uaro

Giveaway ends December 20, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Click HERE to include on your Goodreads TO READ List
Released: 12/2012

Middle Damned
Newly Released Cover!
Middle Damned

. . . Also . . .
Enter to win FREE editing
some of the physical books
and many prizes shown below.

Awesome prizes!
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Winners will be announced on 12/8.

The hosts would like to thank everyone.
Wayman Publishing

We hope you enjoyed discovering new authors and their stories
at our Christmas Book Fair.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sentence Beginnings

Last week, ten of you left comments favoring Sample 1. I, too, favored it. It was more immediate and, I think, more lyrical. It situated you, the reader, in the scene.
            Now the question is “What happened between Draft 13 and 19 that made me change my writing style?” The answer is that I began to pay attention to the way contemporary mystery novelists write.

            In an earlier posting, I examined the way I was taught to write with a variety of simple, compound, and complex sentences. I quickly fell into the habit of beginning many sentences with a subordinate clause that established a timeframe. After she decided to write about the craft of writing, the dismayed writer realized she knew nothing about that topic. Or I’d begin with a participial phrase: Sitting at the computer, the dismayed writer tried to compose her post for the day.
            However, last year I began to examine paragraphs in the mysteries I read. Most were straightforward, that is, the novelists put the subject of the sentence as close as possible to its beginning. They didn’t avoid complex sentences that began with the subordinate clause, but they didn’t favor them either—as I did. With this writing style, a plot moved forward quickly. These novelists built a paragraph of simple, compound, and complex sentences that were simpler in construction than the ones I wrote.
            Some of them seemed to be shooting bullets pointblank at the reader: bang a sentence with subject/predicate at the beginning. Bang, another sentence. Bang, a third. But more often, the novelists were gifted at establishing transition without using the link of a beginning phrase or subordinate clause. I admire this skill.
            So for Draft 19, I edited to rid the manuscript of sentences in which the reader had to slog through a number of words before getting to the subject and its predicate—the “meat” of the sentence. Unfortunately, I do not yet have the ability to write that way without sounding stilted. I need to work on the craft. When I simply write what I’m thinking and the way I'm thinking it, my writing is much more like the 19th century than the 21st.

Here’s a painting by Goya of a Spanish writer with the tools of his trade.

            I’ve now merged the two samples from last week into the following sample. You will note that it illustrates the way I wrote as I grew up. It's not an example of the way many novelists write today.

Burdened with shame, I trekked down to the Jordan to spy on John. By the time I arrived at Elisha’s spring, the sun had already climbed the heavens' vault. Cupping my hand in the rush of its chilled water, I drank deeply, then rose and headed southeast.
      Warily, I descended steep ravines and forded wadis swollen with water rumbling through the steep gorges on its turbulent journey to the Jordan. Only a trickle would reach the winding river when the dry season began.
     As the sun drew the early morning rain back into the heavens, the day grew muggy. Heat shimmered like a spider’s dream as chirring locusts scoured the well-worn path to the river. Rivulets of sweat trickled down my back and soaked the hair massed in the hollows of my armpits. Thistle from low-growing brambles and sweet-smelling acacias snared my tunic with bristled burrs. Thus it was that I arrived at the ford of Bethabara stinking of sweat.
     Beyond the plumed reeds, chattering pilgrims thronged the embankment, chewing figs, spitting out pomegranate seeds, telling overblown tales. Besides subtle phrases spoken in Hebrew, I could hear the musical cadence of Greek and the more familiar Aramaic, spoken with a deep twang by peasants from the Galilee. Amidst the dissonance, I longed for the quiet of my courtyard and the tools of my trade.

Do you think this opening is getting better? That is, does it draw you into the scene and make you want to read more?

“The New Novel” by Winslow Homer.

And would you rather read fewer words or would you rather live in the scene? Some writers can manage both feats. I’m still working on that.

All the photographs are from Wikipedia.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Polishing a Manuscript

Continued from last Sunday . . .

I delete fewer and fewer words as I go through draft after draft. For the novel I now have ready, I first wrote 212,000 words; then cut 86,000 in nineteen drafts.
            Much deleting occurred between 1999 and 2005 when I completed Draft 13. However, earlier drafts were on “floppy” disks that aren’t compatible with this computer. Thus, the two samples presented here are much closer in form than I’d like to show you. Still, if you compare them sentence by sentence you’ll see the refining I did.

2005—Draft 13—245 Words
Early the next morning, I trekked down to the Jordan to spy on John. As the sun began to climb the vault of the heavens, I came to Elisha’s spring. There I knelt to dip my hand into the fresh water welling up from the red clay and drank deeply. It was now warm enough to remove my cloak.
Rising, I headed southeast, descending steep ravines and fording wadis swollen with water, which rumbled through the steep gorges seeking the Jordan. When the dry season began, only a trickle would reach the winding river.
          As the sun drew the early morning rain back into the heavens, the day grew muggy. Heat shimmered like a spider’s dream as chirring locusts scoured the muddy path to the river. Beneath my tunic, rivulets of sweat trickled down my back and soaked the hair massed in the hollows of my armpits. Thistle from low-growing brambles and sweet-smelling acacias snared my tunic. Thus it was that I arrived at the ford of Bethabara stinking of sweat, with burrs puckering my clothes.
Pushing aside the plumed reeds, I joined the chattering pilgrims sitting on the embankment—chewing figs, spitting out pomegranate seeds, telling overblown tales. Besides subtle phrases spoken in Hebrew, I could hear the musical cadence of Greek and the more familiar Aramaic, spoken with a deep twang by peasants from the Galilee. Amidst this dissonance, I longed for the quiet of my courtyard and the tools of my trade.

Wikipedia photograph of the Jordan River

2012—Draft 19—180 words
Elisha’ spring gurgled forth from red clay. I splashed its sun-dappled water on my sweaty face, then refreshed my parched throat. Removing my cloak, I headed southeast, descending steep ravines and fording wadis swollen with water rumbling through the steep gorges toward the Jordan. Only a trickle would reach the winding river when the dry season began.
           Heat shimmered like a spider’s dream as chirring locusts scoured the rutted path to the river. Rivulets of sweat soaked the back of my tunic. Thistle from low-growing brambles tangled my dusty tunic. Thus it was that I arrived at the ford of Bethabara stinking of sweat, with burrs puckering my clothes.
I pushed aside the plumed reeds, draping my cloak over a shrub. Chattering pilgrims thronged the embankment, chewing figs, spitting pomegranate seeds, telling overblown tales. Some spoke subtle phrases in Hebrew; others, the musical cadence of Greek. The multitude used the more familiar Aramaic, spoken with a deep twang by peasants from the Galilee. Amidst this dissonance, I longed for the quiet of my courtyard and the tools of my trade.

Now what can happen with that kind of writing—that is, going over and over a manuscript to delete words—is that the writer can suck the juices out of the words. They become stale. Not only to the writer, but also the reader. And that may be what has happened with this manuscript. Attempting to tighten, I may have removed the story’s savor. I’m interested in what you think.  
Next Sunday I hope to explain how I arrived at the final draft after reading many contemporary novelists and studying how they craft their sentences.