Friday, November 30, 2007

Academic thoughts

I am beginning to think of ways to salvage all this Barbaro research and at the very least turn it into my master's thesis. My program requires the thesis to be multi-disciplinary, that is, bridging two or more areas of academic study, and I have always had a hard time fitting my field of interest into two existing areas of study.

The courses that I have taken have an underlying theme of human-animal interaction, which falls somewhere between anthropology, folklore, bioethics, history and veterinary medicine. I am thinking that the thesis will deal with the impact on humans of treating animals like humans, that is, what are the effects on human caretakers of treating their animals with human medical protocols? Sort of, Barbaro and Beyond: Just Because We Can Do it, Does It Mean We Should?

I am thinking of all my prior research on pet owners whose animals have cancer and the emotional turmoil that they choose to endure for their pets as well as the obviously emotional roller coaster that not only the Jacksons but the medical staff at New Bolton and the public rode with regard to Barbaro. It can be clearly documented from web sites that both groups literally and figuratively "suffered" with the animals undergoing treatment.

I am not so much interested in whether or not it was "worth it," I am sure all involved would say "yes." I am more interested in knowing if they truly knew what they were getting themselves in for and once in, was it to late to reconsider. Should there be a more support for owners of animals undergoing these procedures and if so, what type?

Anyway, the brain cells are beginning to churn and that, for the moment, is a very good sign.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Back to School

I made the first official step toward moving on yesterday by registering for a second semester class at Penn. I did not take a class this semester because I was told to be prepared to drop it and I did not feel like losing money. I dropped the class I had signed up for on the first day of classes and was not charged.

The class I never took was an English class--the literature of end of life--that would have dove-tailed nicely with the Bioethics course I took last summer, but it was clear that it would have been a lot of work, especially a lot of reading. With so many variables up in the air, it just did not seem right to me to start something I could not finish to the best of my abilities. In retrospect, I clearly could have done it and probably would have enjoyed it, but who knew.

This class is a history course entitled What Is A Book? and the relevance of the title alone should give you an idea of where my head is. I am truly looking forward to returning to school. One thing I never realized was how much I would miss it.

I am approaching the end of my course of study. This class will make the seventh of 8 required classes plus a thesis, which actually counts as a course. My original plan was to sum bit a chapter of the book as my thesis. At this point, who knows if that will happen. I actually emailed my advisor yesterday to suggest I submit the proposal which clearly could be Exhibit A in what does not sell.

Clearly I'm trying on many levels to talk myself into accepting the outcome of this adventure as a learning experience.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I used to play competitive tennis as a kid, although by today's standards it hardly seems competitive. Nonetheless, I dutifully signed up for enough USTA sanctioned tournaments to generate a ranking in my age group. And every summer the experience was the same. I usually lost in the first round.

You know the drill--I played one of the top seeds because my ranking was not high enough to guarantee me a good draw. Yet, there I was caught in a no-win cycle: always playing the top seeds, so virtually always guaranteed of losing and never moving beyond the current of losing in the first round.

I tell you this because that is what it feels like in this publishing vortex: stuck in the same cycle. It seems as if once you publish that first book, everything gets easier--you get a better draw. But breaking out of the pattern that locks you into playing against the top seeds seems, at times, like a no-win situation.

To be fair, this is the way most sports work. Come in off the bench in virtually impossible situations and prove yourself. Pinch hit with two outs and bases loaded. Even then, there's no guarantee you get the chance to move up in the rotation. In other words, perform under pressure.

Which I would be delighted to do but the top seed needs to have a very off day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dear John

Yesterday's New York Times reported that the New York Public Library had purchased a huge collection of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s "letters," a collection that measures approximately "280 linear feet." It is a vast trove of every thing from travel journals to correspondence to drafts of speeches and it is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an accomplished historian.

According to the newspaper, about "400 boxes" in the collection contain Schlesinger's personal correspondence with such figures as Lauren Bacall, Art Buchwald and Truman Capote. He was meticulous in his record keeping. Apparently "Schlesinger stapled copies of his responses to letters that he had received."

All of which got me thinking about the lost art of letter writing. For better or worse, there was no Internet in Schlesinger's era and so reviews of plays and restaurants, travel ruminations, advice to peers (the stuff of blogs today) were all recorded in longhand and mailed off to the intended recipients. There was no delete key so things were permanent once they hit the mailbox and unless the recipient tossed the letter into the trash, preserved until the paper crumbled or the ink faded.

I wonder what kind of legacy we electronic writers are leaving behind. Computer disks? Hard drives? Memory sticks? Is the day not far off when the New York Public Library will bid for Philip Roth's computer? And will that computer contain access to all the emails he sent? For that matter are emails worthy of posterity? Are blogs? Does electronic publishing still require print to give it validity?

It's nice to think that blogging gives everyman or woman the opportunity to create a legacy but is that legacy more credible if it is actually printed?

What do you think?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Don't Judge a Book....

In case you missed it, the National Endowment for the Arts announced last week that Americans, in particular, teenagers and young adults, are reading less. A sobering but perhaps, not surprising statistic. All this in a week when Amazon launched its new electronic reader, Kindle, which is billed as an ipod for books.

Obviously books have a lot of competition these days from everything wired, from ipods to computers to television to cell phones. Why read a newspaper when you can get your news from the Daily Show? Why read a magazine when you can get the scoop from television? And why read a book when you can see the movie on your computer?

Why indeed? The romantic notion of escape through language to another place or time seems hopelessly outdated on many levels and the concept of finding the truth by turning pages, particularly in non-fiction, seems painfully slow in comparison with the Internet. We are clearly not spawning a new generation of readers in the old sense. They read, but only if we grab their attention and let them participate in the process.

I believe the future of publishing is very much tied to the digital age. Even as I try to get a book published by the antique method, I launch a blog to hopefully bring readers along on the journey and let them participate in the process through comments. With one foot in the way it's always been, I think I need to have another in the way it's going to have to be, to make both methods succeed.

It's complicated but I also think that baby boomers like us, the ones who grew up escaping through the pages of books, are too large a force to ignore. We may be aging, but we still like to read and there are simply too many of us to bury the hardback, just yet.

Ideally, we have spawned our children in our own images--surrounding them with books and encouraging them to read--but we may have been too busy learning the new methods of communication to have given it our best. Clearly they are going to reinvent the book just like we reinvented the way women work, and it will be better for all those who have a stake in the industry, to pay attention to their tinkerings.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


My kids have come and, for the most part, gone, leaving in their wake a slew of discarded technology. One got a new laptop, and wondered whether or not I would like his cast off. Another informed me that his laptop was hopelessly outdated, so perhaps I would like his when he got a new one, but he was waiting for the new and improved model promised to arrive after the first of the year.

I seem to be the inheritor of all used gizmos, from computers, to digital cameras to i-pods. For some reason, I feel compelled to breathe life back into these rejected piles of circuitry, only to end up spending more money to upgrade, reconfigure and connect them to my wired world. If they still work, it is hard for me to justify tossing them.

The only time I trumped my kids was last summer when I snagged one of the new i-phones hot off the press. I had coveted this device since I had first read about it and held off buying a new cell phone even while mine was dying before my eyes. I did not wait in line, I might add. I made a civilized appointment with the APPLE store concierge and purchased the phone calmly and quietly about two days after the lines had disappeared.

I'm happy to report that the phone has changed my life. I really think I should do a commercial for it I love it so much and despite the warnings from my offspring's predictions of doom and gloom for the first generation of any APPLE product, I have had absolutely NO problems.

In fact, I just cashed in the rebate for some stocking stuffers for them. Dare I ask whose smiling now?

I'm not sure whether the answer is to make do or bite the bullet and go for the new, but I have a feeling I'll be upgrading that old laptop when I upgrade this cast-off desktop and somehow making everything work just fine, as long as they all talk to my phone!

There are some areas, however, where my expertise is still sought out. My daughter asked me just the other day, how to load staples in a stapler.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Here's my recommendation for the holiday movie season: beg, borrow or steal a 6-10 year old and go see Enchanted. I went yesterday afternoon with all five of my nieces and nephews and while the boys were not enthralled until an evil dragon appeared near the end, the girls and I were, well, enchanted.

The movie, which begins in animation and ends in Manhattan, is a tribute to all those glorious musical fairy tales of long ago when princesses waltzed through forests, trilling melodically to birds and beasts, and everything had a happy ending. The Disney film gently mocks itself and every big budget musical every made (even the Sound of Music is not exempt) but does it in such a way that you only wish there were more over the top production numbers.

I won't spoil the ending--but I am sure you can guess that the dragon does not triumph--but you will leave humming and dreaming of happily ever after.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Staying Power

Yesterday I had a moment to peruse some of my favorite blogs and discovered yet, again, the longevity of the Barbaro story. On Dolittler, an excellent animal blog (for those of you who have pets or care about them, it is written by a vet with an insider's view of the profession as well as pet owners), the author reports that number 7 on her list of things to be thankful for, is the Barbaro story.

Her thanks have to do with the spotlight that Barbaro's saga shone on the veterinary profession as well as the attention the beloved racehorse brought to the not always rosy picture of the sport and animal welfare in general.

It is true that Barbaro's story launched an entire grass-roots political movement that continues to this day, devoted to the cause of horse welfare, including rescuing retired racehorses from auctions (where they are often sold for slaughter), lobbying for safer racing surfaces and raising money and awareness for horse retirement facilities.

In fact, it is safe to say that it is highly unusual for an Internet-based fan group to spawn a grass-roots political movement.

Needless to say, I am grateful for all aspects of the Barbaro story as well, not the least of which has been the opportunity to meet some of the most kind, talented and caring people I have ever met.

Would it be greedy to ask for the opportunity to tell their story?

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Happy Thanksgiving to all and to all a good feast!

For dessert check out the fabulous video at You Tube entitled Writer's Montage.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Nip and Tuck

A snip here. A paragraph there. Cut and paste (one of the greatest tools of word processing) all around and Plan B.2 is ready for prime time. I got word back yesterday from Agent Number Two that the new and revised version was "good" and that they would substitute it for parts of the current version.

In short, I am feeling a slight surge of hope. I think by turning what was perceived as a detriment into an asset, we may have hit on something. Only time will tell of course, but for now, I'm content to drift on a cloud of renewed possibility. At least for a day or two.

The art of spin is fascinating. Clinton's mignons mastered it and so, to a certain extent, did the Jackson camp throughout the Barbaro saga. The truth is that people will believe what they are told (if it makes sense, even on some level) and the trick is to repeat your message early and often. I have a friend who says that you have to say everything three times in order for anyone to hear it. The spin doctors say it about thirty times--in different ways, to be sure, but never off message.

The topic of why we don't hear it the first time is another matter (perhaps we have become so programmed to hearing it more than once?) and actually one that concerns me. There is so much we miss by not listening--not only to words but to actions. It is a source of endless frustration to me that people simply do not pay attention to what is often blatantly obvious.

Anyway, it appears that playing in the big league requires repetition. So excuse me if you've heard this all before.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

School for Scandal

If the "high profile" aspect of Plan B falls through--and it looks as if it might (nothing like a few more dips in the roller coaster), then my sister suggested the tried and true "scandal" approach.

"Can't you find a scoop? Some kind of conspiracy or foul play that no one knew about?" she asked me. "That would sell in a second."

In other words, the tabloid approach which, it seems, no one is above. When Vanity Fair published Buzz Bissinger's article on Barbaro in August it touted "exclusive excerpts from Gretchen Jackson's diaries" on the cover even though she never gave those diaries to Bissinger and only read him brief entries (which she has also done for me, by the way).

The problem is that even if there is a scandal, unless I had undeniable truth of its existence, I would be extremely loathe to go on the record about it and even more importantly, no publisher is going to touch it because of liability issues. There was an entry on a media blog yesterday about a recently published book that actually lifted 6 paragraphs verbatim from Wikipedia (can you say major lawsuit?) and we all know about the James Frey fiasco (his memoir was in fact fiction). There is so much plagiarism and fictionalizing going on, that fact checkers are working overtime. Not to mention, there is the believability factor. Who am I to expose the big bad guys--assuming there even is such a thing. I haven;t exactly made a career out of investigative journalism.

The veterinary community and the racing community closed ranks incredibly tightly almost instantaneously after the Barbaro incident and if there is any scandal, I doubt anyone will ever find it. If anything, the story is just that they protect their own.

So we're back to the lack of high profile, which may prove a detriment to the fate of this proposal. At this point, I'm hoping that turning the concept of "too late"' on its head and making it an advantage rather than a disadvantage may help to break the "dam."

We'll see.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Is it just me or is it every time that Mac comes out with a new operating system, the old ones somehow start to slow down? Ever since they came out with Leopard, my old Operating System 10 point something is going at a snail's pace.

I love my Mac dearly and am a devoted lifelong customer but they do get you for being loyal. This has happened before. You hold on to the tried and true, and gradually, actually ever so gradually, it becomes obsolete right in front of your eyes.

Change is complicated especially for us baby boomer computer users. Mac does make everything easier but new systems come with new things I never use or need and more than anything else new challenges to get it to work the old way.

On the other hand, change keeps us young, keeps the brain cells functioning and lets us communicate with our kids. Sometimes though it just all feels like an expensive set-up.

I am going to call my computer guru this week and get his take on everything. Maybe I can hold on just a little bit longer....

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I am re-reading Joan Didion's masterpiece (and I don't use that term lightly), The Year of Magical Thinking, in conjunction with the development of Plan B. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it (actually I think it is better the second time around), not only for the content but for her magical style.

The book, which won every prize imaginable last year, is about Didion's recovery (if there is such a thing) from the sudden death of her husband John Dunne. (The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the couple's only child also died about a year after Dunne but the book was already out by then.) It chronicles in personal and objective terms the process of grief, the year of irrational or "magical" thinking in which the bereaved is literally incapable, on a certain level, of processing the reality that their loved one is gone, even as they go through the motions of acknowledging it. Heavy, perhaps, but also incredibly real, sometimes comical and amazingly well written.

I am re-reading it because Didion catalogues the process of grief in such personal terms that it becomes general. It is her story but it is also the story of anyone who has ever lost any living being, human or animal, that they loved. You see where I'm going here--it is also Gretchen Jackson's story, one which it may have taken her a year to be able to tell.

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," writes Didion. The simple truth on so many levels. How we adapt to the changes is what makes us turn the pages.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

This is a Test

I took a writing test yesterday for a potential client. This is the first time that I have ever had to do this--usually my work speaks for itself--but I figured I had nothing to lose. Besides, it was Friday afternoon.

The challenge was straightforward: write a 250 word arcticle for the organization's newsletter using the facts they provided me. The tricky part was that I had one hour to do this. I could use anything I found on the web or on their website about the subject; I could even make up quotes where I thought it would enhance the story. But I had to send it back within 60 minutes and the clock was ticking even as I read the assignment.

The story line was interesting but I needed a little background info as to why it might be important in the larger scheme of things. My first instinct was to peruse the web for 10 minutes. I found some factual nuggets I thought I could use and began to craft the piece. A title popped into my head but I waited until the end to make sure it would fit with the finished story.

I wrote a lead and then plunged in, only to realise that 250 words is not very much. So I erased the lead. Went with my second paragraph and concentrated on the facts--all of which were actually hard to fit in. With about ten minutes to go, I edited, added the title and pushed send one minute before the deadline.

Was it good? Absolutely no, but it wasn't bad. It had the facts, about two lines of clever prose, and virtually none of the info I had gleaned from the web--well, actually maybe one little nugget.

In retrospect, I realised that I had probably wasted ten minutes of time researching when I should have been writing. Yet I somehow needed to put the story into a larger frame of reference in order to tell it more convincingly. I'm not sure anyone else would have approached it the same way.

In the end, I wonder what the actual purpose of the exercise was--leveling the playing field between all the applicants is one thing but I would rather do a complete job on my terms than play beat the clock.

Regardless, it was a good exercise at figuring out what was really important in the grand scheme of relaying facts and if I ever teach nonfiction writing, you can bet I will use a similar one.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Limbo Land

I got a phone call yesterday afternoon from another writer who was also "in limbo." A successful screen writer, he had decided to try his hand at writing novels (before the strike), and had submitted his manuscript to a bunch of agents on the East Coast. It seems that his "Hollywood" agent and told him to "go East."

He was calling to ask my opinion on Agent Number One.

I told him my story, did not burn any bridges (although I told him he might need more of a "full-service" agency since the little he told me about the novel sounded like it was headed straight for the silver screen), and then we commiserated.

It seems the waiting is torture for everyone--even those who are much more experienced than I. "I just want to get started already," he confessed. Believe me, I know exactly where he is coming from.

Our chat also reminded me that it is sometimes harder to get an agent than it is to sell your book and that everyone, even those who are starting with big-time credits, has to pitch and wait. There seems to be no way to move the process any faster than it wants to go.

I am indeed lucky to have had an agent "find" me which saved me additional waiting time and I am most certainly lucky that I didn't have to write the whole book before I submitted it, but regardless of how we got there, most of us still end up as neighbors in limbo land.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Who's Walking Whom?

I walk my two dogs, a golden retriever and a collie, every day. Phoebe, the six year old golden retriever leads the parade. It is her walk and Amos, the collie, and I merely tag behind. She decides where we want to go and when we turn for home--within reason.

It seems that whenever I have an agenda in mind, usually due to a time constraint, I spend the better part of an hour fighting with a very strong and stubborn dog who simply plants her feet and refuses to move. It's much easier, although every dog trainer in the world would agree that I have lost control, to simply go with the flow. Eventually, we always get home, although it may not be by the route I would have chosen.

There is most definitely an analogy here to telling a story. The shortest distance between the beginning and the end is not always a straight path. In fact, that is usually a boring route. Instead, it is better to stop and sniff every bush, veer for squirrels and explore an alternative trail through the woods. There may be some unplanned diversions along the way and sometimes a startling moment of beauty, like when a deer bounds from the woods right across your path or a hidden tootsie roll, fallen from a child's trick or treat bag rolls across the sidewalk (we had an amazing fight over that one but I eventually wrestled the chewy delight out of her mouth before she broke through the wrapper).

You get the picture. Go with the flow and let the story meander a bit. As long as you end up where you want to be, it doesn't really matter how you get there--within reason.

I tell you all this because that is about where we are in the creation of Plan B--adding some diversions that change course but ultimately add to the richness of the tale.

Phoebe would approve.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Playing with the Big Boys

What an industry! Today's New York Times reports that Judith Regan, former editor at HarperCollins, has filed a huge lawsuit against her former employee for, among other things, mounting what might be called a modern day witch hunt against her for attempting to publish a fictional account of the OJ Simpson murders called, If I Did It. In addition, the article recounts the details of her affair with a high ranking New York City official being vetted for Homeland Security Head (ultimately denied) and alleged instructions to her to lie to federal investigator to protect this candidate's relationship with Giuliani, one of HarperCollins' superstars.

Delightful. Regardless of whether or not any of this is true, we now know a little about the inner workings of the industry. Just the fact that one could allege some of these events took place indicates, at the very least, that all is not what it seems in the world of media giants. Of course, we all probably knew this--after all, everything at a certain level is all about the money--but perhaps being a little closer to it makes me all the more thankful that I am not A) a member of the New York publishing world and B) glad that I have an agent to distance me from some of this.

Scruples? Apparently there are few at a certain echelon of any money manufacturing empire, but that doesn't mean that I need to be close enough to see them all first hand. The trick will be to ultimately play the game enough to be able to benefit from it without getting trampled in the process.

It's no mystery why independent bookstores are a dying breed; independent presses are run on a shoe string and its harder and harder to get a foot in the door without having a media presence. First you create a web site, then you attract a following, then you do the lecture circuit, maybe get a few shots on local talk shows and THEN you write the book. The reverse process no longer exists, unless you are a friend of Oprah.

Forget about cowboys. Don't let your children grow up to be writers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Plan B

For those of you who are riding the giant coaster with me, we are now ascending after a huge dip. The car is slowly creeping upward, creaking toward the crest, the pit of your stomach still hollow from the last drop. It is slow going but it is also time to catch your breath and remember that this is supposed to be fun. And there is always the possibility that the final stretch is a fairly flat, fast ride straight into the station.

I hate roller coasters--actually I hate going too fast, anytime, in any endeavor, because at heart, I am a serious control freak. This ride for me is pure torture, especially the long lulls between the ups and downs, probably times I should indeed be relishing the relative calm. In any event, it seems after a long conversation with Agent Number Two that we are hatching Plan B, that is actually fairly extraordinary.

Of course I am not at liberty to discuss it because there are too many pieces that need to fall into place, but if it does work, it will be one of those, "Why didn't we think of this to begin with?" moments that makes you wonder what we were doing for three months during all those long stretches. Probably hitching our hopes to possibility and passion, all of which is fine and well, but may not, in the end, sell books.

So hang on. I know I have to switch into editing mode and begin contemplating how all these new pieces might fit into what I have already constructed.

I am thrilled to finally be moving once again.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All Aboard!

What a difference a day makes....

New communications from Agent Number Two indicate that he has NOT given up on my original proposal--which his office edited three times--but just wants to start thinking about a PLAN B, in the event PLAN A fizzles. PLAN B should involve a "high profile" which seems to be what PLAN A is lacking.

Whew. The bottom has not dropped out just yet, and as he reminds me, "It only takes one yes," but in the meantime the wheels are turning once again. My feeling is that if someone shows interest in the proposal as it now stands, I'd be willing to work with that party on any changes (within reason) that they feel would make it more marketable, but until that time, making changes blindly to satisfy some unknown entity seems pointless.

I need to pin down this agent of mine to see if there are some general trends that have emerged in the pile of rejection slips that he has been collecting, but some things are truly easier said that done. A man of few and often cryptic words, it is hard to get him on the phone. That said, he knows I'm after him so we'll see what transpires this week.

Welcome to my roller coaster ride and fasten your seat belt. I told you it was an adventure.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


What is the sound of hope changing course? Not a crash, bang or even whimper--just a loud, dull thud that hits you in the gut and attaches to your core. Yesterday I heard from agent Number Two that "due to competition, the best plan of attack might be to change course--to team up with Gretchen Jackson and write her story in her voice...."

Ouch. What happened to "this is one of the greatest stories of all time?" (another one of his direct quotes.) What happened to "we'll sell this in two weeks..."? What happened to the man who swooped in and put my life on hold for a year with his great plans to write the next Seabiscuit?

"Barbaro fatigue" is what he calls it...Competition from other players in the Barbaro story ("Take your time," he told me. "The best books aren't written overnight...")...Fear and uneasiness in the marketing departments....Perhaps the downward economy...Who knows? Publishing is any one's best guess.

So now what? I need to regroup, rethink and ponder the possibility that A) Gretchen would want to do this and B) I would. At stake is a lot of time, energy, and research on my part that somehow should not go to waste combined with her general reluctance to "go public." Also the question of her voice bugs me. Yes, some of it needs to be her voice, but perhaps some could be mine--the objective narrator who has the benefit of detachment, to a certain extent.

How to tell the story of someone else's euphoria, pain, self doubt and heartbreak in two voices....Perhaps a new kind of symphony; perhaps just her song; perhaps nothing in the end.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Point of View

Yesterday afternoon I was invited to the orchestra by one of my friends. It was a lovely afternoon--beautiful music (an all French program with the subtle tone nuances of a Monet painting), great company and a special bonus: seats in the conductor's circle.

For those of you unfamiliar with Philadaelphia's Verizon Hall, these are the seats that face the conductor and look over the shoulders of the orchestra. In other words, you sit facing the audience. The sound is most definitely different from the stage looking out (the brass is fairly overpowering for one), but the visual feast is exceptional.

From that vantage point, you see the actual scores on the musicians' stands, watch the percussionists frantically changing mallets for different sounds and even see things that you would fail to see watching from the front. In the first piece, for example, a contemporary piece by a local composer, Jennifer Higdon entitled Blue Cathedral, the horn section did double duty by playing both the rims of crystal glasses filled with water and gentle Chinese bells that they rolled in their palms. Truly, you would be hard pressed to see the musicians both "warming" up their glass rubbing fingers (one even adjusted the level of water in his glass by adding some from a squirt bottle in his pocket) and fingering the delicate bells, all of which came packed in beautiful padded boxes that rested on their music stands. The result was a glorious mix of sounds that were all the more astounding when you saw their origins.

My point is that perspective is critical in perception, a skill most writers know innately but often struggle with when it comes to putting words on papers. Where you sit does matter, not only in how you tell the story but in what you see.

And changing seats is good for all of us to shake up our senses and to get a new handle on the big picture.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Power of the Story

StoryCorps, a national oral history project, is visiting Philadelphia and reminding people of the power of the narrative. The brainchild of David Isay, a renowned radio documentarian, the mission of StoryCorps is to record the stories of "ordinary" people and archive them at the American Folk Life Center in Washington, DC.

If you listen to NPR, you may have heard some of these stories. They are spellbinding, both in their simplicity and in their depth. Ordinary people do extraordinary things every day and when they talk about them their accomplishments touch others in ways that are unexpected and powerful because they resonate deep in our souls.

If nothing else, the story of Barbaro is an incredibly powerful tale of people who try to do the right thing for the right reason and the obstacles that stand in their way, not the least of which are, at times, their own self-doubts. It is, at its heart, the story of trying to save a life, not because it is any more valuable than any other life, but simply because it is a life and that is what you do.

It needs to be told, preserved and recorded because it is what most of us try to do every day in different ways. I just hope I get the chance....

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Strike a Balance

You might notice some visual changes to this blog--new colors, new links to some of my work and coming soon, links to other blogs that I read. I'm slowly getting the hang of the technology and beginning to stake my claim in the cyber-world of self-promotion.

It was in the process of developing the links to some of my work that I ran into the very same stumbling block over which television writers have taken to the picket line--the issue of internet rights and residual payments. You might notice that my links do not contain any to commercial magazines, for which I have indeed written. Those articles are available only to subscribers of those publications, usually for a fee.

So while the magazines pay me for printing my work one time, they earn the residuals every time any one clicks on my story via their website. In other words, they are getting paid many times over for my work and I am not.

It's a complicated issue of work for hire, in which the author usually gives away his/her rights to the work in order to get paid, versus retaining the rights to the story and earning money every time the story is reprinted. Truth be told it never was much of an issue until the proliferation of electronic publishing but now, as the television writers strike indicates, it is indeed very much an issue.

Compare the situation to songwriters who earn royalties EVERY TIME their song is played regardless of where--on the radio, on television, in a bar, and technically even every time a wedding band plays it. ASCAP is a huge and powerful force that has taken care of its own for a very long time. The Writers Guild is not quite as powerful but they are certainly trying to make their voices heard.

You can probably figure out where I stand on the issue--hoping that television writers will make an impact on the way the rest of us get paid--but realistic enough to understand it may take a very long time to trickle down.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Muscrat Love

The recent issue of Time magazine contains a story about the popular Animal Planet series, Meerkat Manor. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it is a nature show about a colony of meerkats, with all the drama of human life ("turf wars, sex, betrayal and cuddly pups"), minus the salaries of high paid actors.

The meerkats don't talk in Disney-esque voices (there is a running narrative), but they do have human names and lately, human tragedies. Two of the shows most popular meerkats, Flower and Mozart (Flower's daughter) recently died, the former of a snakebite while defending her pups, the later by an unknown predator.

Immediately, "grief stricken fans held on-line vigils, created Diana-style tributes, even suggested the deaths were faked. (Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance--they hit every stage)," reports Time. "On Animal Planet forums they mourned, eulogized and fantasized...On YouTube, they created dozens of video shrines, scored to power ballads."

Sound familiar? After Barbaro was injured, his fans staged similar vigils, complete with on-line candle lightings and shrines constructed along the entrance to New Bolton Center, where he was hospitalized. The gifts, cards, prayers came by the truck load and after the horse was euthanized the grief was palpable, through the cyberspace that linked the horse's fans around the world.

Animals' struggle for survival, regardless of the species, seems to strike a resilient chord deep in our hearts. Perhaps they put faces on our own suffering and the helplessness we all feel in the presence of circumstance beyond our control. Perhaps they remind us that we are all equally minute in the workings of a grander universe.

Or perhaps we just don't like to see anything die.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Barbaro Bill

It is Election Day and while this is the farthest thing from a political blog, I thought I'd take the opportunity to bring up an important bill that is slowly making its way to the floors of the House and Senate, House Resolution 503 and Senate Resolution 311, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

The bill, which I dub the Barbaro Bill, has been floating around the halls of government for about ten years (no joke), and made it through the House of Representatives in December of 2006, spurred on, in part, by the endorsement of Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro's owner. It never made it to the floor of the Senate before they adjourned for the year and so had to start all over again.

Currently, one of the Bill's sponsors is Senator John Ensign of Nevada who as recently as a few weeks ago, re-introduced the Bill on the Senate floor. What is interesting about Ensign is that he is a veterinarian and in backing the Bill, he is breaking with both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine practitioners, groups opposed to the legislation.

The reasons for their opposition are complex and have to do primarily with the fear that, without the option of slaughter (and some income), unwanted horses will waste away in fields, uncared for and die even more inhumane deaths than the captive-bolt administers.

The legislation is supported by many groups including the National Horse Protection Coalition, the Humane Society of the United States and the Doris Day Animal League.

I should point out that all horses slaughtered in the United States are prohibited from being consumed in the US by decades old legislation. The slaughter plants are owned by European companies that, through loopholes, are permitted to operate slaughter plants in the US and ship the rendered meat overseas.

Slaughter is one of racing's dirty little secrets and one of the causes the the Fans of Barbaro have adopted in their equine hero's honor.

On this election day, if you are so inclined to lend your support, you can call, write or email your government representatives about your feelings.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I think my kids are worried about me. One of them called the other day with an idea for a "significant" story into which, he promised, I could "sink my teeth."

"It might even turn into a book," he said enthusiastically.
"That," I countered a little too quickly, "is a four letter word that I don't want to discuss."
"Precisely my point," he continued. "This would be the perfect project to take your mind off of Barbaro."

Actually it is a good idea and I dutifully queried the editor of the publication for which it is a nice fit, only to receive an auto reply that he was out of the office until the end of the week.

Fair enough. It's a good enough idea that he should get back to me. If not, I know where to find him. And the point has been made that it's probably time for me to refocus. As much as my agent warns against taking on any new "big" projects, it is time, in more ways than not, to move on. One way to escape from this holding pattern is to change course.

What's that they say? "Out of the mouths of babes..."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Revelations I & II

The last sesson at yesterday's conference was a panel discussion of editors and agents that was extremely informative. In fact, I learned two important revelations about my relationship with my agent.

First, it was clear from listening to each of the agents speak about what they were looking for in both a proposal and an author, that each one was extremely selective. In fact, the entire process of getting a book published is akin to a long climb up a ladder of selectivity, with each rung being progressively narrow. If you make it past the first step of getting published at all, to the next rung of compiling a portfolio of clips, to the next level of being signed by an agent to the next level of actually getting your book "shopped" then it is STILL a long climb to the top. The selectivity on the part of the agents is designed to protect their investments of time (their chief commodity) and energy. In other words, they are not going to sign you unless they feel they can sell your book. There are simply too many other possibilities out there for them to waste time on projects that will not pan out. Hence the dificulty in procurring an agent to begin with.

That being said, the fact that my agent procurred me indicates that he truly believes the book will sell. Otherwise he would not have wasted his time, energy and resources to date on getting my proposal into "fighting' shape.

Second, not only can the process take anywhere from three days to three years (yes, someone actually took three years to sell a book....), once your project has been "shopped" by one agent, it is very unusual for another to touch it with a ten foot pole. Of course, editors do move and publishing house rules do change, but once an agent has given it his or her "all," very few are willing to take on someone's failures.

So, it looks as if I am "wed" to my agent for the long haul. Once he has put his imprimatur on my proposal, no one else is going to touch it. If he can't sell it, chances are no one else can.

So where does that leave me, other than a little more savvy about the world of publishing? Back on square one: believing (on good days) that my agent knows what he is doing or he would not have taken me on and wondering (on bad days) whether or not he is doing all that can be done.

In other words, stuck between two rungs...

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Writer's Conference

I am attending a local writer's conference today, which so far has
been excellent, including a morning session on blogging with many
helpful tips.

It is always good to be reminded that there are others who hear a
steady dialogue in their heads between the voice of doubt and the
voice of confidence. The trick is to turn down the volume on both so
the voice with something to say gets a chance to speak.

We writers are, at heart, a fragile bunch even though we may seem
otherwise. It is always good to be surrounded by others who truly do
understand the roller coaster ride we go through on an almost daily

Afternoon sessions include a panel with agents and editors that should
prove enlightening about the timing question. Maybe I 'll find out how
long, on average, the shopping of a proposal takes...

More later.
Sent from my iPhone

Friday, November 2, 2007

Horses, Horses, Everywhere...

As I continue to exist in the "no reply zone," I find myself contemplating two possibilities for the lack of response to my book proposal: 1) I missed the window of opportunity for the Barbaro story and 2) Horses are a timeless source of inspiration and appeal to many people.

I know the two are polar opposites, which may have to do with the level of frustration I often feel.

If indeed the Barbaro story is "old news," why do three horses standing in a field save George Clooney's life in the current movie, Michael Clayton? And why does Blood Horse magazine, one of the thoroughbred world's leading publications, devote one quarter of its recent issue to a deceased 32-year old gelding named John Henry, whose life was a rags to riches story on many levels? And why did news organizations devote footage to rescued horses during the recent California wildfires?

The answer, I truly believe, is that horses have always held a special appeal for Americans in particular. Our country was literally built on horse power. Horses cleared out fields, took us to uncharted territories, carried soldiers into battle and transported our goods. And along the way, they earned special places in our popular culture--think the Lone Ranger's Silver, Comanche, the horse that survived Custer's Last Stand, and Secretariat as well as, yes, Barbaro.

So the mystery remains...Why doesn't anyone want to take a chance on story that has already stood the test of time?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fountain of Ideas

People often ask me whether most of my work is assigned or suggested by me. The answer is that it varies, depending on the client. A lot of my steady work is indeed assigned and related to the scope of the publication for which it is intended. On the other hand, if I spot something that seems to look like a good fit, I do not hesitate to mention it to an editor with whom I have a long-standing relationship.

Unless I am approaching a new publication, I rarely write a formal query and even in the case of new outlets, I usually call the features editor before I waste any one's time. The truth of the matter is, editors, like the rest of the world, are on overload and a lot of written queries never make it past the delete button.

So where do I get my ideas? From just about everywhere. I read two newspapers a day (in print because I like turning pages with my coffee), peruse numerous blogs, listen to NPR almost all the time I am in the car, try to attend various cultural events and give myself time every day to let it all percolate.

In other words, you might think I'm walking my dogs through rain, snow, sleet and hail but I'm also warming up my brain and allowing it to make connections between random thoughts and ideas. You'd be surprised at some of the things that emerge.

Of course, I often rely on suggestions from family and friends about interesting people, places and things so keep those calls coming!

Celebrity Power

Here's how important it is to have a celebrity name associated with your book. Tuesday morning on Good Morning America, James Patterson (of best-seller fame) appeared to promote his new book: a non-fiction tome about the son of his friends who has Tourette's Syndrome, entitled Against Medical Advice.

There is no way in the world that this book would ever have been published without Patterson's participation--just another medical story, as compelling as it might be, about an average family confronting a medical nightmare. But add the name of a best selling author to the cover and Voila!--instant success.

All of which goes to underscore the near-impossibility of getting your book published without a celebrity to endorse it or participate in its creation. All of which showcases the problems inherent in the publishing industry--they are only publishing "sure things" with name recognition that they know will sell, which leaves the little guys, with compelling stories and even proven talent, locked out.

I know I have written about this before and I know you hear the bitter taste of rejection coming through, but I find it incredibly shallow and superficial that the arbiters of literary taste are always pushing more of the same.

This has nothing to do with Mr. Patterson or the Friedmans, whose son has Tourettes. I am sure it is a good read and will do a lot to put Tourette's on the national radar screen and attract funding for research, both of which are worthwhile endeavors. But it is about those who should be helping you break through rather than concentrating on the ones that already have...