Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Working on the ReWrites

Cape Cod Weather Today: Cold! Cold enough to wear my scarf to the beach when I walked the dogs this morning! Winter scarves in October! It was sunny when I dropped the kids at school, but ominous clouds have been slowly rolling in off the ocean...

After receiving the editorial comments from my editor last week, and downing (several) martinis, I realized something most first time authors probably come to understand at some point early in their careers.

My editor is right.

My manuscript (my baby!) is good, but it could be much better. She didn't say it was ugly, just that it needed some work. There are some places where it drags on, and other places where it could be developed more fully. There are things the characters do that make them less sympathetic that should be cut, and motives that need to be further explained.

So after a weekend away from the computer, busily doing activities with the children and not dwelling on her comments, I was able to come back to the document Sunday night, and start the process of rewriting. And I found something else out.

Rewriting can be fun!

I'm actually enjoying the process of making the story line stronger, writing new dialogue to stregthen motives and alibis. Parts that I must have rushed through in my original quest to reach the finish line (and type "the end") are being given a more thorough development this time around. And it's fun, because I also realize that some of these things I already knew about my characters and never communicated properly. And some of the story lines aren't as integral to the final story as I had thought when I was writing it the first time around.

All this being said, I'm hoping to get the rewrite "right" the first time around.

How often do you think that happens?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pudding Time

Cape Cod Weather Today: Cold and Dark. It's still early yet, so hoping it warms up and brightens up...still have to close that swimming pool....

We drove down to Virginia this weekend to make the Christmas puddings. They have to be made in advance, so they can sit. And ferment. Sound good yet?

There are no plums in Plum Pudding. I need to say this first, because it bothered me as a child. “Where are the plums?” I’d ask. “How can it be Plum Pudding without plums?”

In medieval England, “plums” referred to any fruits that could be cooked or dried to store for the winter. One way to save fruit was to make it into big round cakes, which were wrapped in muslin, boiled for hours, and stored with the salted meat and other supplies, to be eaten mid-winter. Some recipes were better than others, resulting in puddings that would last without getting moldy or crumbly. The best recipes were handed down from mother to daughter for generations. A really good recipe, with just the right ratio of ingredients, was a prize worth keeping a family secret.

My English great-grandmother arrived in America around 1900, still in her mother’s belly. Beatrice was born in New York City, and inherited her family’s prized recipe for “Plum Pudding.” Bea and her younger sister Mae both married and moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey in 1915. They carefully wrote out a copy of their mother’s prized recipe, ripping it in half and bringing the pieces together only at pudding time.

Today, my extended family still gathers each fall to follow the time-honored traditions of English pudding making, muslin and all. The recipe is finally kept in one piece – but with only one copy in existence, in my grandmother’s handwriting. She copied the two faded and stained halves together after her mother’s death. The family joked about “international pudding thieves,” but Bea made her two daughters swear never to share the secret recipe outside the family.

My grandmother and great aunt each had three children, who in turn had children and grandchildren. The family now stretches across America, from Cape Cod to Hawaii, with family in ten states and Germany. And each fall someone volunteers their kitchen, and the rest of us make the annual trek to participate in the “Pudding Party.”

Pudding is an all-day event, starting after breakfast and stretching well into the evening (depending upon how much wine is consumed in the process.) We grate stale bread, zest lemons, pick the hard bits from the suet, measure the dried cherries and yellow sultanas… we spread lard along the insides of heavy mixing bowls, and pack the pudding down on top with inches of unbleached flour… we wrap the puddings in muslin and boil them for hours… and we bask in the family togetherness, sharing stories of our present and telling tales from the past.

One tale from the past is of Sir Thomas Horner. According to legend, Horner was the steward of Glastonbury Abbey during the time of King Henry VIII’s Reformation of the Church. To finance his duel wars with the Catholic countries of France and Spain, the King passed the Dissolution of Monasteries Act, breaking apart church properties and selling them to lords more loyal to the throne than to the Pope. In Glastonbury, the abbot hid several such deeds within a Christmas pudding for safe transport, but Horner stole them and ended up as a titled man of property. The nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner tells the tale.

Little Jack Horner sits in his corner

Eating his Christmas Pie.

He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum,

And said, “What a good boy am I!”

One of the other families who profited from the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act was the Browne family, who received the title of Viscount Montague. They were cursed by the monks of Battle Abbey whom they displaced. A 1907 New York Times article recounts the “curse of fire and water,” and the various misfortunes to befall the family. After the manor house itself finally burned down, King George granted the Browne family plantations on the island of St. Vincent, where the curse of fire followed them. Their plantations were wiped out by an erupting volcano. Twice.

The curse seems to have lifted when William Browne, the youngest son of the family, journeyed to America and married Beatrice Taylor. Does this have anything to do with the family’s secret Plum Pudding recipe? Could Horner’s Christmas pudding be in any way related to the traditional pudding we still make and wish upon today? We may never know for sure, but it’s certainly fun to speculate.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A New Writing Group

Cape Cod Weather today: Sunny. Beautiful. Period.

I joined a new writing group this fall, and finally made it to a meeting last night. I met the six other women and the group facilitator, and introduced myself. We joked about politics, and touched briefly on the economy, both subjects too nerve-wracking at the moment for anyone to want to discuss in depth...

I listened as the other women shared their week's writing. The first story was about a mother's pain at placing her autistic son in a group home. The second tale was of a cynical againg woman who rejects the chance of new love. The third was a memoir of a woman who grew up in Communist Poland, pre-World War II. Then we took a break to eat a pot-luck bounty provided by the members.

I had brought four new pages form my mermaid fantasy. A simple children's tale, apges I worried were not rich with enough descriptive details. How could I read such lightweight stuff in the company of these others? Hurridly I ate my salad, worrying all the while. I finished eating first.

The facilitator noticed I had finished, and asked me to read while the rest finished their plates. I protested that it was too light for the group. She assured me it was fine, and might lighten the mood. I took a deep breath and explained the premise of my story. Then I read.

The women laughed in the right places, they asked specific questions about the landscape I had described (they listened!) and they assured me the details were wonderful, rich and colorful enough to paint a picture in their minds.

I exhaled, not realizing I'd been holding my breath. I was glad I had shared, and felt validated by the experience. No one minded that it wasn't heavy and emotional, they enjoyed the story.

And then we moved on to dessert. Cheesecake.

All in all, a succesful first class.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Visit to the Bookstore

Cape Cod Weather Today: Overcast, with ominous dark clouds rolling in from the west... the weather channel is calling for rain today, even though yesterday they swore it would hold off until Monday...

I went shopping yesterday, with my arms firmly crossed against my stomach, determined just to window shop and not spend any money. I held out for the first two hours... and then ended up in the Barnes and Noble... and cha-ching! Of course I had to spend money.

To be fair, one of my missions was to buy the next boxed set of Junie B. Jones books, by Barbara Park, for my 8 year old. Always a reluctant reader, I finally hooked her this summer with Junie B.'s over the top antics and trouble-maker ways... and a Littlest Pet Shop figurine for each chapter book she finishes. I'm not above bribery when it comes to changing a habit or forming a new one.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of drivel being printed, even in hard cover. Tons of witches, wizards and dragons still trying to capitalize on the Harry Potter phenomenon, but books where the writing seems to be rushed and not as carefully crafted as it could have been... just because these are books aimed at kids doesn't mean you can skimp on the writing.

I consider myself an educated reader of middle grade/young adult fiction, and while I enjoy Carl Hiasson, Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, and Lois Lowrey, I really enjoy books with an element of fantasy mixed in. I love J.K. Rowling's style, and all of her books. I've really enjoyed Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series - and actually was sucked in by a huge display for his latest Artemis book in the series, just out in hard cover. I enjoyed Christopher Paolino's first book, Eragon, and dutifully read through the second book Eldest, although I didn't enjoy the second as much as my nine year old did. I was able to resist the huge display for Brisingr... we can wait until it comes out in soft cover, or until the spring book fair at school, where I'm sure it will be featured heavily.

I enjoyed the Magic Treehouse books with my first son when he was a reluctant reader in second grade - those and the Time Warp Trio series, by Jon Szeska, are the books that turned him around and made him into the fantastic reader he is today. The switch from able reader to eager reader comes with discovering the other worlds that books can offer.

I also bought a copy of the Dragon Heir, by Cinda Williams Chima, third in a series that began with the Wizard Heir, and continued with the Warrior Heir. My twelve year old devoured the first two, and made his younger brother read them. I read the first two when I had the flu last winter - engaging writing that makes you need to keep going.

And I shouldn't even have to mention how much I loved reading Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, although they are more YA or teen fiction than middle grade reading. I'm enjoying it for the third time since discovering the series over the summer. The first book was my favorite in terms of writing, even though I've read them all and enjoyed the storyline and plot twists. I didn't like much of the last book, and found myself grimacing my way through it, hoping for redemption or resolution. I also enjoyed The Host, Meyer's adult fiction, although my twelve year old couldn't get past the first "boring" chapter. He also devoured the Twilight series and has passed them along to the neighbor's reluctant reader boys, 13 and 16, who are now happily engaged with Meyer's world.

The book I am currently working on is middle grade fiction, set on Cape Cod. I like the ones with some basis in this world, something to grab onto and relate to, with the fantasy tightly woven into the reality. A book which makes the younger reader wonder if magic really does exist right alongside backpacks, homework, and soccer practice.

Because we could all use a little more magic in our lives.

My goal is to finish it in the next six weeks (in between editing my upcoming suspense novel) and start looking for an agent who specializes in middle grade fiction. Wish me luck... and a little magic!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Hint of Autumn, Beginnings and Endings

Cape Cod Weather today: At this moment, the sun is shining and the sky is finally blue! It down poured at the bus stop this morning, and there was a gargantuan rainbow over the entire town when I dropped my sleepyhead middle child at the elementary school... and now the sun is out and singing. I love this changeable fall weather... and I need to get the dogs up to the beach before it changes again!

There are so many things I love about the autumn season, the unpredictable weather actually being one of them! I love the end of the humidity so I'm able to throw a sweater on, and not feeling itchy about it... I love walking through the neighborhood at night and not worrying about cars because all the summer residents have gone home... I love the seasonal sports - watching my oldest play soccer, and my daughter play field hockey, and even my sports-reluctant musician plays flag football in the town league after school...

In the garden, autumn is a time for things to die back and go into hibernation for the winter. The colors on the maple trees are beginning to turn from green to red, while the oak leaves go straight to brown. I enjoy watching the leaves on the grapevines turning yellow and orange, thinning out and ultimately falling into the swimming pool...

Okay, I don't like that part so much. I don't like the fact that my husband puts off closing the pool until it actually hurts to put your hand in the water, let alone go swimming! We've had pools for fifteen years of our marriage, and Columbus Day is the earliest we've ever closed a pool. My mom never closes her pool, but she lives in Georgia. We live in New England. It's hard to get the kids into the water after Labor Day...

Fall is also a great time for festivals, craft shows, and road trips - either to have friends visit Cape Cod, or travel off-Cape ourselves. My daughter's Brownie troop is planning a trip to one of those Corn Mazes out in western Massachusetts one Saturday coming up, hopefully there will be time to go apple picking while we're there!

We also have the ever-popular family trek south for the annual Plum Pudding Gathering.... I was asked to write an article for CAPE WOMEN ONLINE about the plum pudding tradition for their upcoming winter issue, for a section about holiday recipes and traditions. I penned 600 words yesterday, and think I might take them to the new writing group I've joined. The group meets tonight for the first time, and should end before the vice-presidential debate begins.

It's only taken me a month to find a new writing group - it was one of my goals for fall. I hope it's a good group of women, and I don't mean they have to all be fabulous writers, but supportive people with good writing skills, and without the cynicism of the last group. Because while I enjoy cynicism and sarcasm (and probably more than the average person), they are skills which don't translate well into every context.