Friday, May 28, 2010

Missing You

They sell this at Whole Foods. It tastes so much better than American butter. Why is that? I plan to have plenty of Irish butter in Ireland.

Me in Paris, France in September 2007.

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dear Blogging Friends,

I’ll be away from 05/28 until 06/05, so I won't be writing new posts during that time, and probably won't have much time to check your posts. (Sorry!) I'll make up for it when I return. While I'll try to respond to any comments, I'm on vacation, so I should treat it as such. Who goes to Dublin and Paris, and remembers all the blogging they accomplished?

And I’m trying not to think of all the bad things that could happen to do with missing luggage, sickness, ash from volcanoes, and plane safety. When anything good comes my way, I fear it’s fleeting and make myself a ball of anxiety.

What will I do when I actually get an agent? And a book contract? I have to let good things come my way without apologizing for them. Sorry I’m not worthy.

I’m not the only one who has a problem with the idea of success without strings:

When I return from the trip, I hope to hear good things happening for you on the teaching, writing, and life fronts. If you have news or just miss me, email me at tmilstein at gmail dot com. Or read one of my old posts. Some of the earlier ones have little or no comments, so they’re lonely.

I’m nearing 200 followers, so I plan to have a BIG contest when I get back. It will involve autographed books, a gift card, and something to do with rejections. Stay tuned.

Have a great week, blogging buddies!



“Get back, yeah, get back

Get back to where you once belonged

Get back, ooo”

- Mccartney, Paul; Lennon, John. Song “Get Back”, The Beatles

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Generalizing Gender

"I try to laugh about it

Cover it all up with lies

I try and

Laugh about it

Hiding the tears in my eyes

'cause boys don't cry

Boys don't cry."

- Smith, Robert; Tolhurts, Lol; Dempsey, Michael. “Boys Don’t Cry” The Cure

Tuesday morning just after 5:30 am, the phone rang for a Spanish teacher job. Since I had Monday off, and spent at least four hours of it writing and editing, I was happy to work. Well, as happy as I ever am to sub. The job started at the rally school, but ended at the school with the messy gym teacher who left me no plans last week.

When I reached the middle school, I found the other Spanish teacher who was happy to see me, as usual. I’d be running her first class so she could have a prep period, and then I’d be at the other school. The teachers offered me a seat and coffee. Being at this school is such a different experience from the teachers who ignored me during their lunch party the prior week.

First period students were chatty each time the other Spanish teacher left the room, but most of them worked. The boys who had gone to the Celtics playoffs game the night before were a little less focused. Luckily, the girls had gone on Saturday so they were over it.

At the second school were magazines and packets for the two seventh and two eighth-grade classes to complete. All four classes were good, especially considering it’s middle school. Most kids (especially girls) went right to work while a few (mostly boys) needed encouraging/reminding/me to sit with them/to be separated, but they were in the minority.

One group of four boisterous boys asked my name. When I told them, “Ms. Milstein,” one asked, “Can we call you M Dog?” I laughed and declined. Then they proceeded to tell me their nicknames. I’d forgotten it was a first-name teacher school. When I’d subbed gym last week, these same students wanted to call me “T Dog”, which I also turned down.

This reminded me of last week when I’d subbed gym at the high school. At the end of the day, one eleventh-grade boy shot hoops by himself. At some point, the ball rolled near the door. I watched him pick it up and notice his reflection in the door's glass. For a long time, he stood before it; practicing moves that he thought made him look cool. I pretended to look anywhere else and somehow refrained from laughing. At one point during his admiration of his reflection, the ball got away from him and bounced near me. “Sorry,” he said, “I was…” but didn’t finish his sentence.

After lunch I got sick. I’ll spare you the details but let me say it was a stomach thing. And the classroom on an eighty + degree-day was considerably hotter than outside, which wasn’t helping things. If the students weren’t so good, I don’t know how I would’ve managed.

When I got home, I fell asleep until my children came off the bus. My daughter wanted to tell me all about a t-shirt with puppies and clouds or clouds that were puppies owned by two girls in her class. “Can we buy one?” she begged. My son proudly told me about the bee that stung his leg while he played football during recess.

Most of their reports are like that. My daughter tells me about what she’s learned, and her feelings. My son tells me about football.

Of course, this is an over-generalization about my children. My son talks about football and plays bloody war video games, but he talks about inequality and the environment. He looks out for his sister. He treats all girls with respect. He appreciates flowers. He doesn’t like it when students misbehave at school. He’ll be a good boyfriend someday, in my humble opinion.

Female writers, especially of middle grade and young adult books, need to watch how they portray their boy characters. It’s easy to write teenage boys as if they’re like us. They are and they aren’t. Boys are more physical and less focused. If they’re working, it’s usually not as quietly or still. They project a false bravado. They’re funny. At least when they aren’t being jerks. (I mean that last word with love.)

I read Maggie Stiefvater’s book Shiver. Her character, Sam is sensitive, but she provides reasons for it. And I’m aware what someone feels like inside and how they behave are often quite different. Males have soft sides, but we can’t ignore the parts that are less soft. I would imagine it’s easier for women to write male characters than it is for men to write female characters. But maybe that’s an overgeneralization too.

While we can be aware of differences, whether we are writing gender or ethnicity, we want to be true to our characters’ experiences while still writing about our common humanity.

When I teach, I make a little more room for boys, while still making sure the girls don’t feel the boys are getting away with everything. It’s a fine line.

Teachers, what do you observe in your classroom? Do you see big or small differences in gender?

Readers, do you think male characters ring true or come across as unrealistic?

Writers, do you struggle writing a character of the opposite sex? If so, why?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Most Improved Player

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”

- Don William Jr.

From the title, you thought this was going to be a post about teaching gym, didn’t you? Nope, it’s about writing.

I just pulled this excerpt below from 06/10/06. It’s my first completed manuscript. In rough draft. Why would I admit to this, you ask? Good question. I’m revealing this piece of (insert disparaging noun here) because it shows how far I’ve come.

This is the beginning of the prologue to Jordan Walsh the Extraordinary: Circle of Four:

Jordan Walsh was an ordinary teenager. Well, he felt he was ordinary. He lived in an ordinary suburb in Long Island, New York on an ordinary street. He had ordinary parents. He went to an ordinary public school. It was all so ordinary; it made him want to scream sometimes.

Jordan was on the threshold of his thirteenth birthday and teenage angst was beginning to bubble inside his veins. Of course, he didn’t feel there was angst involved or that it could possibly be from the very act of becoming a teenager. Jordan was quite sure he was justified in every emotion brewing inside his stomach, spreading to the tips of his fingers. Over the past year he spent more time alone in his room and less time with any of the friends he had from elementary school.

In fact, this previous year had been the loneliest in Jordan’s life. He felt himself turning more inward for the answers to the questions that began to buzz in his head. Sometimes he couldn’t make out the particular words for all the buzzes and hums, but he knew they were questions that would not let up unless he could figure out the answers. So, in order to devote more time to this task he had shut out virtually everyone and found himself in a deeper state of melancholy.

He felt had reasons for this malaise. After all, his parents seemed to be so preoccupied and had little time for him. He wasn’t sure he wanted time for them, but he wished more than a little that they acted more like parents were supposed to act. Jordan’s mom was the head of the PTA and she made it her whole world. There she was, working on behalf of all the students in his school, but one (two if you counted his sister). And many nights he had to reheat his own dinner or make a box of macaroni and cheese. There was always a meeting about a budget, event, or something to do with curriculum, whatever that was. She seemed to fly in and out of the house like a bird during the first warmth of spring. She would flit around to take care of a few household duties, phone in ear, and give absentminded kisses with instructions for dinner on the way out the door. She would rarely even sit still long enough for a conversation. It was as if his mother made herself busy just to avoid spending time with them. If she liked school so much, why didn’t she just become a teacher? Jordan didn’t understand why she didn’t try to get a full-time job like his father.

It’s the first 448 words. If you’ve been following my blog for any period of time, you may remember I’ve said I used to have a problem with show, not tell. YOU THINK? Was I writing a synopsis or query or…. WHAT?

I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m going to. When I tried to fix it, I added a wake-up scene, and then described every aspect of Jordan’s appearance by having him look in the mirror. I know. Shudder.

In contrast, here’s my most recent beginning, also a rough draft of Naked Eye:

You know how adults are always warning children not to run with scissors because they could lose an eye and to stop tipping back their chairs back because they could crack open their skulls? I’ve never cracked open my skull from tipping back a desk chair, but three years ago, I ran with scissors and lost an eye.

Seventh Grade

My class worked on an art project, making dioramas of our bedrooms, which had to be drawn to scale. “That’s my scissor,” I accused Andrea when I’d moved scraps of paper, bits of Styrofoam, and pipe cleaners only to spy my orange-handled one in her hand. “It’s mine now,” she responded. Her lifeless hair covered her expression, and she didn’t even bother looking up as she cut out her dilapidated-looking dresser. I only knew it was a dresser because she’d told me. Her attitude artistic ability was as bad as her attitude.

I huffed up from the table, banging shoulders with that sloth, Jeremy on the way to the art supply desk. We were locker neighbors, and he made sure to take his time with his door blocking mine so I’d stand there tapping my foot until just before the bell. It was only two weeks into school and I’d received three tardies because of him.

I searched the bin to find only rusty scissors were left, which would be terrible for slicing through thick paper. Snatching a scissor, I hurried back to the desk. “Lucienne, no running,” the art teacher, Ms. Lee warned from Jeremy’s table. I didn’t think it counted as running, but I wanted to get back to work and Andrea already wasted enough of my time. Something tripped up my feet and the next thing I knew, I flew forward landing smack on my stomach. Pain seared my right eye, which made my brain explode in a flash of light, with shrapnel reverberating in my skull.

I screamed forever as I writhed around on the ground. I kept my eyes shut tight to keep from knowing how bad it was. I knew it was horrible because I felt something sticky running down my right cheek. And the pain wouldn’t cease. The incessant agony went on and on to matter how hard I begged to escape even though no coherent words formed on my lips.

Hands were on me. People spoke but I couldn’t understand them because I couldn’t stop howling. There came a tugging on my hand and I realized my fist still gripped the rusty scissor. They wanted me to let it go, but I refused to release my grip. My body became a stuck in a fetal position. A prick stung my shoulder and within seconds, my body loosened until it wasn’t mine to control. My voice fell away along with the pain. They hoisted and placed me on something softer than the hard classroom floor, and soon my jelly body jostled as wind rushed over my skin. Running feet and squeaky wheels echoed in my head.

There came a slam, and then I sensed the light had dimmed while drops of liquid pricked my skin. I attempted to open my eyes but something was wrong. Only one eye cooperated. Above me loomed a threatening sky as rain assaulted my fragile face. I shut my working eye.

My last thought before I got knocked out was, Jeremy tripped me on purpose and because of him something terrible had happened to me.

This is the first chapter at 578 words. I read this part and some of the second chapter aloud to the peer critiquers at the NESCBWI conference. They gave me some great suggestions, which I haven’t yet incorporated. So you get to read it raw.

I’m excited to return from my trip and see where this story goes.

Another journey begins.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Log on Dialogue

“The real miracle of individuation and reclamation of the Wild Woman is that we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feeling that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”

- Clarissa Pinkola Estes

At the NESCBWI conference, I attended a workshop called “Dialogue as an Agent of Change” taught by Liza Ketchum*. When I signed up for the conference, I thought, Do I really need to take a workshop on dialogue? I’ve been told to work on grammar, sentence variety, and show, not tell. My dialogue is decent. But of the other choices, this one appealed to me the most. Besides, even if my dialogue is good, I can always make it better.

The workshop wound up being better than I’d imagined. I don’t recall whether she was quoting or it was in her own words but Ms. Ketchum made some valid assertions:

Dialogue is like salt for the palate. We take it for granted but miss it when it’s not there.

It’s the spine of the story. It holds us up and channels a story like nerves.

Dialogue reveals character. It’s THE way to nail character.

It’s also a great way to show the story’s conflict. You don’t have to use adverbs to show emotion.

And it gives the eyes a rest from paragraphs.

After many more morsels of dialogue wisdom and examples from actual books, the attendees were told to get into groups of three for a dialogue exercise. I got in a group of three. Each of us had to write eight to ten character traits of our protagonist. Then we had to exchange our lists. My job was to write a monologue based on this glimpse of someone else’s protagonist.

Here’s what the writer wrote about her main character (MC):

Girl is 6

Loves Terry

Hates Terry

Wear pigtails

Jumps off swing sets

Skinny legs

Plays imaginary games

Has goldfish crumbs in the corner of her mouth

Knows her ABC’s

Picks Play-Doh from under her fingernail

Big brown eyes, tiny mouth

Then, incorporating as many traits as possible, I had ten minutes to turn this into a monologue. Here’s what I came up with:

“I’m six-years-old, but in one month I’ll be six-and-a-half, but we don’t have a party like for whole birthdays. Yesterday, I played with Terry on the swings to see who could jump the farthest, but he cheated he rolled after we landed but he didn’t tell the truth, so then I wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

“He’s so annoying because he calls me ‘Twig legs’. And he’s a showoff because he can say his ABC’s backwards. Big deal. I do mine the right way and that’s all the teacher cares about. And he’s so bossy, always getting to be the cop when we play cops and robbers. Next time, I’m gonna get to pick first. And if he pulls my pigtails when I tell him, I’m gonna knock him down.”

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But it was fun. I could see and hear the protagonist.

It was cool to hear what the writer came up with from my MC (Eve from The Disappearances). After the three of us finished our monologues and read them to one another, we had to write dialogue based on the interactions of our three characters. In addition, someone came around and revealed a secret motivation of our protagonists that we should try to slip into the dialogue.

When we were done, my group volunteered to go up and act out our parts. The fact that I not only agreed to go up, but it was actually my idea, so I coaxed the others was HUGE for me. No pain, no gain. Right? In my humble opinion, we were AWESOME.

I’ve often said that I couldn’t write on command. It had to be my idea I was interested in shaping or there would be no story to tell. The workshop taught me that I am able to write on command.

Recently, I saw a commercial on Bravo for some TV show where artists will have to create art to win. The channel had done it for cooking, interior design, hair, and fashion design, but…. ART?

After attending the workshop, I think maybe it is possible.

*Here’s Liza’s website:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Impatience for Time

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

~ Calvin Coolidge

My last post only told of my subbing tales until Wednesday. After the excitement of the conference and the two guest posts, life returned to my version of normal. I’ve noticed that since the regular gatekeeper is out, my sub calls come later and later. (Do the sub gatekeepers like to sleep in?) On Thursday morning, I had already showered and (hopefully) put on casual clothes. Then. The. Phone. Rang. For P.E. Might as well keep on those casual clothes and add sneakers.

The job was at the school with the big pep rally from several weeks ago, where I spend a lot of time in the middle school. Turns out his pep rally paid off because the boys and girls’ teams won championships. There was an article written in the “Cambridge Chronicle”, which got the attention of someone from Dunkin’ Donuts. So Saturday and tonight the teacher and his teams get to attend the Celtics and the Boston Garden. Soooo jealous.

After the 2nd/3rd-grade class did stations, I watched two fourth and fifth-grade classes play prison dodge ball. Then I left for the other school. When I entered the gym, a few three-year-old Montessori students ran over to embrace my waist. Too cute.

It turned out the gym teachers had a meeting that afternoon, so I’d be working with the building sub. She’d been there since March, so I figured she’d take over. I WAS WRONG. She was intimidated by gym, so I ran the three afternoon 1st/2nd-grade classes. Heck, it was my third time subbing gym that week, so I’ve become an expert.

Friday morning, I received another late call to sub (drum roll please) GYM! This time, it was at the high school. I’d only subbed P.E. there once before and it was for swimming, so I just had to make sure students didn’t sneak out (or drown) while the swim coaches ran the classes.

When I reached the office, I was told the teacher had a light day with just two classes. There were no plans left for the secretary or in the mailbox. I was told to show up for homeroom second period to find out where my “Avid” class was located and what I’d be doing. ????? Until then, I got coffee, went to the teacher’s resource center, and applied for newly popped up jobs in a thirty-minute driving vicinity.

I hung out at homeroom, and then waited for the other teacher. It was the same classroom I’d helped out in a week or two ago as a Special Ed. teacher for Math. Luckily, the other teacher actually ran the classes (meaning, knew how to solve math equations). When the Math teacher arrived, she said the gym teacher was on a field trip with her Avid class, so I had the period off. This meant I had no class until fourth period. Back to the teacher’s room I went to write a post.

At some point, I went into the teacher’s dining area to eat lunch. There, I saw another sub I’ve seen from time to time. I made some polite conversation:

“Have you been getting slammed with a lot of jobs too?”

“No, I’ve only worked once or twice last week and this week.”

“Really? Are you down to teach a lot of different classes?”

“Yes, I’m down for everything.”

“Even gym? I’ve been teaching a lot of gym.”

“Yes, I’m down for gym.”

“How long have you been subbing?”

“Ten years.”


(If anyone has a theory why this is the case, feel free to insert it in the comments section below.)

All I want is to sleep in, and after everyone has left the house, WRITE. I have a million-and-one ideas crowding my head, begging to be written down. There are three or four posts ideas waiting. Aubrie sent me the final The Disappearances edits, and I want to get them done and find another beta reader for more feedback. My new manuscript Naked Eye isn’t happy I’m waiting until I return from the trip to write in earnest. I keep ignoring the words that pop in my head to propel the story.

Then there are the agents and editors I can submit to after the conference. I have some work to do on my Aura and The Disappearances queries. At this point, I’m afraid that will have to wait until the return as well.

Something is different. The winds have change have blown in my direction, and I feel if I had time I could take advantage of this momentum. I’ve heard other writers who finally get published say they’ve known something was different when they submitted manuscript x, and then they got offers. Not to be dramatic, but not only has my writing improved, but my understanding of the whole manuscript is at another level. I hope my persistence will pay off.

All I want to do is press on. But I’m stalled for the time being.

The end of the year can’t come soon enough.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Whirlwind Week

“Hope is a good thing – maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies.”
- Stephen King

Since I returned from the conference late Sunday afternoon, I feel like I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath. While the kids did their chores and the house was in decent shape, food was in short supply and I had to catch up on laundry. It’s amazing how many clothes can accumulate in the basket since I “caught up” on laundry that Friday.
I had much writing-related work on my plate and wanted to contact all of the people I met at the conference. Unlike previous years, this time I was better about talking to people and handing out business cards. When I saw another person jot a note on mine, I realized how important it was to take my own notes before some of the people became scrambled in my head. Second on the agenda was to write a post because I’m used to writing nearly every day. And in the back of my mind was the request I had to write a post for the Guide to Literary Agents blog.

The sub-line was merciless, not caring how busy I had been or about my lack of sleep or the inspiration I’d received compelling me to write. The second blog post I ever wrote* was about dressing for work. For the past several weeks, I’d given up putting out a casual outfit in case I didn’t receive a call, figuring I wouldn’t have another day off until the end of the year. But Monday morning, I received a call from a NEW GATEKEEPER, who sent me to a GYM job. Gym clothes required.
The job was for the teacher who has the dirtiest, messiest supply room I’ve ever seen. There were no plans left. I took the 5th/6th-graders out to shoot hoops on the lovely day. Then I had a kindergarten and two 1st/2nd-grades, which I kept inside with stations (bouncers, hula-hoops, jump ropes, soft Frisbees, and soft balls). It went well except for the popularity of the hoppers. There are never enough hoppers. The only down side was one first-grader who lost her mind and beat me up at the end of the class. Luckily, she was the size of a preschooler so I didn’t get hurt. Not that she didn’t try.
A woman who shadowed another student said she was so impressed with me the time I’d subbed for music that she’d told the office. It hadn’t led to jobs there, but still. A boy in that class had a broken leg, so I set up ring toss for him. The problem was I had to retrieve the rings and watch the students. The principal came up to check on me in the midst of the chaos. So much for that recommendation.
Afterwards, I had 7th-graders for health, but with no plans, the principal didn’t expect me to teach it, and I gave the students free choice instead. Basically, they did the same things as the kindergarten and 1st/2nd graders + basketball and without all the injuries, pushing, and stealing one another’s balls. 3rd/4th-graders came in for the last class. I took them outside to play soccer, basketball, and jump rope.

After teaching gym, getting beaten up (sort of), and writing a post, I was tired. It didn’t stop the gatekeeper calling me on Tuesday morning, with a confusing assignment. I was to teach English and fifth-grade. When I realized it was for the Spanish school, it made sense. I’d be speaking in the English language to the fifth-grade students. They were a dream, with only minor chatting and slacking.
One girl thought I was twenty-years-old, but she also thought Eleanor Roosevelt was married to Theodore Roosevelt, so her judgment was a little off. At some point I gave them ten seconds to clean off their desks, counting in Spanish. One boy responded, “Today’s not a Spanish day. It’s an English day.”
During my breaks and quiet work time, I wrote a post for my blog and one for Writer’s Digest. But I waited to edit the post over until after school. Even though I e-mailed it to Chuck Sambuchino in the evening, he responded quickly, asking for a picture and bio.

The next morning, I received an e-mail from Olive to write a post. Soon after, my phone rang in another GYM job at the place I’d taught middle school Spanish a month ago. Fifth-graders played mat ball (kick ball with mats and a couple of other rules) and I co-taught, so it was easy. That teacher left for another school, so I was on my own for the rest of the day. Sixth-graders argued and trash talked a lot during mat ball. After that, I had third and fourth-graders. They were all sweet, and the day was easy. I set up stations. Boys wanted me to see them shoot hoops and girls wanted me to count jump rope rotations.
It helped by winning them over during warm-ups. I told them if they were good, I wouldn’t make them do that quick foot-moving defense move. I also reminded them it wasn’t the end of the world if we did the moves out of order. I am a seasoned gym sub (for no reason I can fathom) so I know what to say and how to behave. My authority is never in question.
The Writer’s Digest post showed up at some point that morning. Woo hoo! Feeling good, I went to the teacher’s room to microwave my lunch. There, a teacher party was in full swing with free food. Nobody looked at me, let alone offered me food. I heated up my fried rice and went back to the gym to work on my post for Olive.
My friend’s child was in one of the fourth-grade groups. He’s a nice boy who’s friends with my son and gave my daughter her first kiss. (Don’t ask.) When I saw him tossing a football by himself, I played with him for the next half-hour.
At the end of the day, he came to say goodbye. I offered him a ride home. On the way, he chatted about getting braces and kids at school.

When we reached his house, he said, “Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem. Anytime you see me subbing at the school, just come over at the end of the day and I’ll drive you home.”
“Just like when you subbed Spanish, I could’ve asked you for a ride?”
He paused. “You know, it’s a good thing you’re a sub.”

I don’t know about that.

* My second post:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Connections II

I've been invited to write another post at Write Olive. Please check out her blog and either link:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Comparing Critiques

“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that lost by not trying.”

- Francis Bacon Sr.

At the conference, I put myself through three critiques. The first was a peer critique on Friday afternoon.

Two years ago, at my first ever peer-critique, I’d brought a rough draft of Indigo in the Know. The feedback was essential, making me decide to start the story in a different place. The next day, I took a workshop on openings and read aloud at what I thought was a better beginning for the manuscript. Although my voice started to wobble, it evened when I found the protagonist’s voice. The instructor and several writers came up to compliment me at the end of the workshop and throughout the conference.

Last year, I brought the beginning of Aura for peer critique, and received positive feedback and some tips for improvement. But I showed the editor ten pages of my newly written The Disappearances and couldn’t adequately explain what it was meant to be because I didn’t know myself.

This year, after writing a few pages of Naked Eye on Mother’s Day and a few more during the week, I brought it to read aloud. Writing these pages came much easier to me. That’s not entirely true. I’ve never had a problem spitting out pages. And that’s what they look like once someone else shows me where I’ve gone wrong. But this time, the words were better. I’ve improved with each manuscript.

I’m not saying there isn’t work to do. But this time, I won’t need to focus as much on grammar or show, don’t tell or to find a better hook to begin. I am miles, no, light years away from the first manuscript I ever wrote. Thanks to reading books on writing and grammar, as well as finally absorbing the comments regarding the mistakes I’d made over and over, I finally know what it takes to produce a decent sentence, a stronger paragraph, a crisper page.

And I’m less married to words. I have the blog to thank for that. I try to keep my posts to less than 1k words, so sometimes when I've written an interesting paragraph, but the piece is too long and the part doesn’t fit… I CUT IT. Without looking back. NO MERCY.

After the peer critique, I had my agent critique. This is where I fess up. In April, I was one of the winners of Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent Contest. I never actually expected to WIN. I’d entered looking for feedback on a beginning. And where did I find out? On the Bolt Bus traveling from New York to Boston. And what did I win? The option to send a query and ten-pages for critique. My face turned red and I wanted to gasp, “OHMYGOD,” but I’m sure the other passengers would’ve thought I was crazy.

What should I have done? Taken my time to polish my manuscript. Guess what I did? Yep, you guessed it. I sent the query and ten pages while still on the bus because nobody was around to talk some sense into me. (Perhaps I should’ve confided in those passengers.) As promised, the agent responded quickly. With a rejection.

A week or so before the conference, I received an e-mail notification about which agent would be critiquing the query for Aura. Guess who? Yes, the very same agent.

I thought about e-mailing the agent, explaining about my lost mind, but decided to use up part of my ten precious minutes to tell her instead. When I got there, I said, “I’m Theresa Milstein, one of the winners of Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Contest.” She looked at me, clearly confused. Somehow, I hadn’t been the last submission she’d looked at. (I know, shocking!) She struggled to remember. “Is that the one with the Walmart and the couple?”

My original query letter wasn’t getting any bites (get it, vampire story). I worked with someone else and wrote a new one, and wanted feedback before I considered sending it out to the wide world of agents. She was awesome, telling me to make sure I answered:

Who is the main character?

What do they want?

What’s stopping them?

What choice do they have to make?

How does the problem get worse?

She also told me to promote it as standalone with series potential and to focus on what made it unique (Jewish girl not seduced by another vampire). Then she invited me to rewrite and resubmit it with five pages. Yay!

Late Saturday afternoon, it was time for my synopsis plus nine pages of Aura. The editor said if she had more pages, she would’ve continued reading. She liked the main character and the voice. The editor agreed the market was saturated with vampire paranormal romances, but said if I focused on what made it unique (same as above), I may find a publisher looking for a new spin. UNFORTUNATELY, her publisher had one coming out on her list so slot taken.

Then I told the editor I’d written something else, and that it was almost ready for submission. In the future, I hope to send The Disappearances.

I didn’t get an offer of representation. I didn’t get a request for a full. But the feedback I received showed me I’m closer. And when speaking with agents and editors, I had more confidence in my work and myself. Compared with my editor critiques the previous two years… there is no comparison.

“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stalking Cynthia

This dress looks much better in person. I look terrible, but Cynthia Lord looks great.

“I have always been an admirer. I regard the gift of admiration as indispensable is one is to amount to something; I don’t know where I would be without it.”

- Francois de la Rochefoucauld

If Cynthia Lord reads this, she’s going to think I’m crazy. Or actually stalking her. Of course, I’m not stalking her. I think.

Last year, Cynthia Lord was a keynote speaker at the NESCBWI conference. She seemed so nice (the kind of nice that makes you want to be her friend) and I admired her story. Ms. Lord’s Saturday talk moved me to tears. And on Sunday for an interview, she’d brought her Newbury Medal, sending it out to the audience to make a wish on it. My wish still hasn’t come true, but I’m holding out hope.

At the same conference, she autographed my book. Afterwards, I read it and realized what all the fuss was about. I wrote a post about it:

One day, I decided to check her blog. I commented about my post and provided a link. You know what? She commented back. And on my post, I provided a link to her post along with our comments:

As I stated in Friday’s post, at this year’s conference, I planned to take a workshop on school visits even though I don’t have an agent, let alone a book to promote. Since there wasn’t much else that interested me on Sunday afternoon, I decided to take it anyway for possible future school visits. And as I wrote in the last post… Cynthia Lord.

Imagine my surprise on Friday when I came to the registration desk and found out I’d be the “Handler” for that two-hour intensive workshop. Being a Handler meant I’d check that people were registered for the course at the door, pass out any handouts, introduce the speaker(s) if needed, and provide anything the speaker(s) may need. By the time of the workshop, I wasn’t nervous because I’d already been a Handler (and made a mess of it) the previous day.

The workshop run by Cynthia Lord and Toni Buzzeo was awesome. Being a parent on a school art committee, a writer, and a teacher, I could see school visits from a variety of perspectives.

As a parent who has set up author/illustrator visits (for Gareth Hinds, Noah Z. Jones, Laya Steinberg, Paul B. Janeczko, and Matt Tavares), I was familiar with contracts and author requests. It was interesting to hear it from Cynthia and Toni’s perspectives.

As a writer, I could see how visits could be a lot of pressure and why authors need to plan ahead of time to ensure a smooth visit. Equipment provided by the school and writer had to be considered. So did number of talks, number of kids at the talks, and the lengths of the talks (depending on grade). Also, what types of “props” the writer should bring.

As a teacher, especially a sub, the idea of being thrown in unfamiliar situations was not a foreign concept. And the suggestions were EXACTLY how I handle myself when students first walk into the classroom:

Have something on screen (or in my case, the board)

Give eye contact


Smile (unless they come in with a bad attitude)

Have someone introduce you because helps transfer authority (or in my case, introduce myself)

State expectations beforehand

Their tips for dealing with behavior are also techniques I use: eye contact, scanning, proximity, and pausing. (And my patented glare.)

Another suggestion was to touch a student’s shoulder as a warning. Not only do I give a warning touch, but I also do it as reinforcement for a compliment.

Being a former teacher (Ms. Lord) and librarian (Ms. Buzzeo) these women knew about providing different tools for different types of learners, so visual and tactile were as important as auditory.

The session was scheduled to be two hours, but both writers stayed another forty-five minutes for questions. Afterwards, I asked for a picture of both of them and a picture with Cynthia Lord.

It was a satisfying ending to a wonderful conference.

Now that I have Cynthia Lord’s autograph from last year, a photo this year, saw her speak three separate times, and posted about her twice, I’m done stalking her. I’m pretty sure.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Conference Confidence

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”

- Eleanor Roosevelt

“I have nothing but confidence in you, and very little of that.”

- Groucho Marx

Today is the day. Today I attend the NESCBWI Conference. I’m a volunteer at the check-in table. I also have a peer critique for the first pages of my WIP Naked Eye. I’m enduring a query critique for Aura with an agent I’m intimidated to meet for reasons I’d rather not say. (Or in this case, write.) Tonight I’ll have dinner with a writer friend, attend the party, and meet my roommate.

Tomorrow I’ll be a “handler” for a double-workshop "Social Media Tips and Tricks". I will have a ten-page critique (synopsis + 9 pages) for Aura with an unknown agent. I will attend other workshops and make small talk. I don’t know if I’ll eat dinner with anyone or be alone. And I’ll be spending the night in my room sans roommate.

And the panic is creeping in.

Sunday will be easier because I have no volunteer duties and no more critiques. I’ll be attending a double-workshop with Cynthia Lord (the author of Rules) about school visits. Of course, I don’t have an agent, let alone a book so having anything to promote is just a distant dream. But still… Cynthia Lord. Besides, it never hurts to be prepared if/when I do have a book to promote. (Please let it be when.)

Thursday was spent preparing for the conference. What to wear? I’m trying to strike the balance between professional and comfortable, youthful and appropriate. And what should be my layering piece in case it’s cold. (I have the feeling the men don’t have to agonize this much.)

Besides agonizing about my attire, I also needed to print. How many pages of my manuscripts and how many? I decided on ten pages, along with cover letters and synopses, three copies apiece of Aura and The Disappearances. Of course, I rarely have an opportunity to give them to anyone since it’s more likely an agent will tell me to mail or e-mail them. Bringing them is more like a security blanket.

What if I forget toothpaste? (Gross)

What if I forget deodorant? (Grosser)

What if I forget my flat iron? (Unthinkable)

Yesterday, my son stayed home sick. Last night, my throat felt scratchy and my nose seemed stuffy. This morning, I had schmutz in my eyes. I remembered removing a piece of gook my daughter had in her eye yesterday. Now I was sure I had pink eye. Does anyone else get paranoid they’re coming down with something before a big event?

Side story, for my first kid I went into labor at midnight. By 1:00 pm, my throat felt scratchy. I said to my husband, “I think I’m getting sick.” He replied, “You’re not getting sick. You’ve been up for over twenty-four hours and have been in labor for thirteen hours.”

The critiques will hang over my head until they’re done. I don’t expect more than critical feedback, even though I can’t help feeling the tiniest itty bit of hope. I put myself through this torture to improve my writing. Although I’ve submitted Aura for this conference, it’s not where my head is right now. I’m consumed with The Disappearances and Naked Eye. But I love Aura and I want a professional opinion on it.

I love conferences. I hate conferences. Well, I don’t really hate them; I’m just apprehensive. In one of my first blog posts*, I discussed my feelings about conferences. Each time I attend, I’m more confident. I’ve accomplished more, even if it’s not tangible like an agent or a book deal, but because I’ve learned more about writing and submitting. And I have a better manuscript to present. Conversely, each year is another that’s passed since I’ve began with little to show for it.

“How long have you been writing?”

“Do you have an agent?”

“Do you have any books published?”

This is the one arena I’d love a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

When I return home, I don’t believe I’ll report miracles, but I know I’ll learn things. Important things. And I’ll share them with you because I have something I didn’t have at any of the other conferences. A blogging community.

And if I have some time, maybe I’ll even post some updates on Facebook.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you attended any conferences? If so, which ones? How do you feel about them? Where are you in your writing career?

I’ll miss you all this weekend. Have a great one!

* Previous conference post: