Thursday, March 31, 2011

For Mom

My mother, Gwendolyn Ardyth Simm Goodwin, passed away today at the age of 85, from Alzheimer's Disease. She went peacefully and quietly with my sister, Jessica, by her side. I have missed her already for almost 10 years, and will miss her always, but I am glad now to know that both my parents are watching over me now and they will always be with me.

These are a few of her favorite things:
I Love Lucy - especially the chocolate factory and Vita-Meata-Vegimen episodes
Going over the Bourne Bridge into Cape Cod
Southport, Maine

Mom's made-up words and expressions:
Bonanza Day Treat! - said when eating a large hot fudge sundae
Teedeetootie - a name for my sister's security blanket
Chatting Hour - for girls only
He thinks he's body-everyself - to describe a stuck-up person
The Girls' Friendly - her name for the church group actually called The Friendly Guild

My beautiful and brilliant budding writer 13-year-old neice Olivia wrote this poem for her Grandma Gwen:

From the moment i first saw her,
Until the time she said goodbye,
I knew she was amazing,
By the twinkle in her eye.
Her smile,
...So pure, and loving and kind,
And I just can't seem to get her memory,
Ever out of my mind.
I'll miss you forever and always,
never forget your love,
I know you'll enjoy heaven,
Watching me from above.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Writing Through Sorrow

The first piece I ever got published was a feature story for Guidepost's Angels on Earth magazine. It was a true account of something that happened shortly after my dad had a crippling stroke at age 80. Until then, Dad was still working as an independent land surveyor and had seemed to be in robust health. The stroke left us stunned and heartbroken - for him, for our family, for this shocking and abrupt end to life as we had known it. Writing the piece for Angels on Earth helped me to cope with my sorrow during the most difficult time I had ever known.

Over the next few months, it became clear that Dad would never walk again. Despite the physical incapacity, his mind was sharp -sharper than most 80-year-olds who haven't had brain trauma. But he was understandably sad and depressed. My mission became to help him find ways to feel like part of the world, to feel like he could still make a contribution. We collaborated on a memoir that was published in The Martha's Vineyard Gazette. We wrote companion memoirs about a home town character, whom Dad had known as a selectman and local businessman, and whom I had known as my cantankerous first employer. The pieces were published in our hometown newspaper.

Five years later, Dad passed away. Soon after, I wrote a poem called Poppies, which captured feelings about my childhood and the cycles of life. The poem won 10th prize in the 2010 Writer's Digest Annual Poetry Competition.

It did not escape my notice that the things I wrote during times of deep sadness had a high degree of success - with success defined as being accepted for publication. My emotions were intense and raw, and that somehow enabled words to flow as freely as tears and to coagulate in ways that had strong impact.

When Dad passed away, I asked myself how I could keep the wonderful memories of my parents and my childhood alive. I already knew the answer: I could honor my parents, and thank them for the wonderful start they gave me in life, through my writing. I could breathe new life into the streets of our hometown and the people who lived there. I could recapture some of the joy of my own childhood by writing books for children.

My mother has Alzheimer's and has been "gone" from us for almost 10 years. She is now dying - today, tomorrow, very soon. Though I have grieved for her for a long time already, there is fresh sadness today with the finality of her passing. I know that these feelings will well up and demand release through writing - in fact, they already have.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Five Books That Changed My Life

We read to learn, to understand, to grow, expand our worlds and our minds, to be inspired and entertained, to be moved, to escape. The words of others, and the way they combine and sequence those words in infinitely unique combinations, amazes and moves us. Books can change the way we think, the way we feel and the way we see the world. Here are five books that changed my way of thinking, and therefore changed my life:

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne : I don't know how old I was when I read this book - probably between the ages of eight and ten. What I distinctly remember though, was thinking this specific thought: I want to write books like this, Tiddly- pom. 

The House of Belonging, Poems by David Whyte: I didn't really like poetry very much before reading David Whyte. I felt that it was often incomprehensible and therefore unrelatable. David Whyte is different. His poems are like the moors of his homeland: there is great beauty in their  spareness. I can work out the meaning of his poems, allowing me to connect with them emotionally. Whyte inspired me to try writing poetry - something that had never interested me before.

Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach: I read this when I was in my forties, at a time when I was deeply dissatisfied and longed for greater personal meaning in my work and my life. This book reminded me to take the time to be grateful every day, and to find joy in simple pleasures. It helped me to remember back to a time when just the sight of violets growing by the side of the road made me feel like a millionaire.

In The Meantime by Iyanla Vanzant: This book is about relationships - most importantly, the one we have with ourselves. The key message is about learning to speak your truth - to say, clearly, what you want and need, and to banish the belief that doing so makes you selfish. Vanzant says that by learning to love ourselves, to honor our own needs and purposes in life, we become better partners, parents and friends.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:  I am in love with Anne Lamott! She writes about writing and life and life and writing until they become one and the same. She is willing to share herself freely and openly. In doing so, she gives us all permission to be more accepting of ourselves, and more open to sharing who we are through our writing. She is wise, compassionate, and so darn funny.  The single most important writing help I got from Anne is her concept of the "shitty first draft." It freed me completely and forever from the tyrannical idea that my words had to fall perfectly into place the very first time.

What books changed your life? They don't have to be about writing - most of these aren't. Books that help us become confident in who we are and teach us about life make us better writers too.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Book by Arthur Wooten and a Blog Award

I have recently reconnected on Facebook with several elementary and high school classmates, and it's wonderful to find out what they do now. It turns out that Arthur Wooten, whom I knew as "Bobby", is a playright and the author of two critically acclaimed books, On Picking Fruit and Fruit Cocktail. For two years he has been the humorist for the London based magazine, reFRESH. But most importantly, Bobby - er - Arthur's new book, Birthday Pie, will be released in April. Check it out on his website at

Today I want to give a blog award that I just made up: The "I Wish I'd Written That Post" Blog Award. It goes to Sarah Allen, who wrote the 3/19 post: 5 Things Writers Can Learn from American Idol's Casey Abrams."  Casey is is absolutely fearless about being himself and just putting it out there. Sarah hits the target with her assessment of what Casey is doing right and how it applies to writers - and anyone pursuing a creative path. Check out Sarah's blog at:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing a FICTION Book Proposal

Once my agent and I finished line-editing my book she said, "Okay, next we do the book proposal." I said, "HUH?" I had figured that at this point she would just send it off, or better yet, walk it into the offices of our selected publishers and say, "HEY everybody, check THIS out!" Apparently not.

It seems kind of weird doesn't it, the idea of a book proposal for a work of fiction? With non-fiction it makes more sense, because you can pitch your idea along with an outline before you have finished writing the book. But with fiction, the book must be done, complete, fini! before you approach anyone - agent or publisher. So when does a fiction book proposal come into play and what's in it? It comes into play when you and your agent think the book is ready to go to a publisher. If you write for children, as I do, there are publishers you can approach without an agent, so the time would be when you are sure beyond a doubt that your book is ready.

Here's what's in my book proposal:
*Marketing plan
*Author's Bio
*Comparable and complementary books

Overview: This is a summary of the story that is a cross between a query and a synopsis. Mine is just shy of two pages for a manuscript of 160 pages. It is written like the query, with a strong opening to grab the attention, and staying with your voice. And, it's like a synopsis, in that it is written in present tense: "When 12-year-old Jamie Reynold's world falls apart ...." But unlike a synopsis, in which you tell pretty much the whole story, including giving away the twists, turns, surprises AND the ending, in the overview, you leave enough unanswered questions and suspense to get the publisher to say, "I need to know what happens and I want to read it now!" So, think of it like the query you wanted to write - the one that was a few pages long!

Marketing plan: This is where you tell the publisher the things YOU will proactively do to help sell your book. It's not where you tell them how THEY should market it.  The idea really, is to show publishers your willingness to participate in promoting your book, that you have thought about it, and that you have creative ideas about it.

Nowadays, it's pretty much a given that you will establish a website, so you will want to tell them that, and you will probably want to reserve an appropriate URL. You can also mention if you have a blog or plan to start one, and any other social networking you do or plan to do.

It's a given that you'll be willing to do book readings and signings, so indicate that willingness, but add any ideas of your own for giving talks or workshops. Again, since my book is for kids, and a large portion of the story takes place during the Depression, we honed in on ideas for fun classroom discussions. One example is showing kids how to find the stories in the local history of their own town. Another is talking about what things have changed since the 1930's, and what things have remained unchanged (or have come around again).

You'll want to talk about your ideas for contacting media, especially in any locations where you have a personal history or presence. If you are lucky enough to have personal contacts in any media - TV, radio, or print - name names.

Let them know your history and comfort with talking to and in front of groups. If you don't have experience with this and it scares you, start now to get some, in whatever ways you can.

And, anything else you can think of that is specific to you or your book that will offer visibility.

Author's Bio: All About You, but short :-)

Comparable and Complementary Books:  This is really important, because publishers will look at books that are similar (in whatever way) to yours to see how they sold. Fortunately, my agent had some ideas about comparable books.

What makes a book comparable? In my case, we picked up on these key aspects: Christmas as a backdrop, an historical element,a fantasy component, and similar themes (like overcoming fears and helping others becoming its own reward). We picked three books that all used Christmas. One had the historical aspect, one had the fantasy component, and the other had similar themes. One was for the same targeted age-group as my book, but the other two were for younger readers.

We are putting the finishing touches on the proposal, and my hope is that my agent will be off presenting it to publishers by the end of this month. I really like the way this process was a collaboration between my agent and me. She gave the proposal its overall format and shape, and identified the essential components. But then she allowed me to be an active participant in creating this incredibly important document that will have my name on it. I don't know if all agents will handle it that way, but I feel the end product presents my book the way I would want it presented. And, being involved was a great learning experience. As writers, we really need to understand what matters to publishers so that we can make the best possible impression, and so that we understand what will be asked of us when our books make their way into the world.

If anyone else has tips for people about doing their proposals, please comment. And if you have any questions, please ask!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It's Always Good to Have a Back-up Plan!

Just posting a funny photo today, as we are on vacation in beautiful La Paz, Mexico and wifi is spotty. We took this picture in Todos Santos, a lovely town about an hour away from La Paz (on the Baja peninsula). Todos Santos is combination charming old Mexican town and upscale ex-patriate community. We stayed overnight at the Hotel California, which isn't really the one in the song, but they like to go along with letting you think it is! It's right in the center of town and is beautifully appointed in rustic charm. Comfy beds with nice linens, Mexican tile, several gorgeous wall-encased outdoor "living rooms." I think if you had a room on the street it would be noisy, but we were in the back - due to a mix-up on their part, they gave us a better room at the lower rate! It had two balconies overlooking the pool and patios.

Oh, and we took the bus from La Paz to get there. Last year we hired a van to take us, and the guy gave us a great tour, but it was expensive ($200) and we felt like we would have liked more time to walk around the town on our own. So this year we took the bus ($34 round trip for both of us.) I was a little nervous about that, but it turns out the buses are reliable and quite nice - good, comfortable seats and we even had a movie! This weekend Todos Santos is hosting their version of the Sundance Film Festival, called the Festival de Cine, Todos Santos. Mexican hearthrob Diego Luna is hosting it (he was in Frida and Milk), presenting his film Abel, which took awards in Sundance and Cannes. If you go to Todos Santos, you can eat great food cheap at Miguel's, and we also had good margaritas, tortilla soup and nachos at Hotel California.

All in all a fun adventure!