Thursday, March 31, 2011

Good Rejections

As a writer, I've received my share of rejection letters from literary magazines.  I found another in my inbox last week.  "Strongly considered," it said.  "I like your ideas and writing."  But still a rejection.  They're never fun, but I've learned to take comfort from the "good" rejections.  Oxymoron, you say?  Not at all. 

Though most rejections are form letters, many magazines have tiered rejections.  The standard runs along the lines of "This piece is not right for our magazine/does not suit our current needs."  The more polite ones add something like "We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere."

The same magazine might have a better version, however:  "We really enjoyed your work.  Please try us again."  Or "Nicely written.  Do try us again."  Those last three words are the key.  When magazines ask you to try them again, most really mean what they say.  It's not as if they're hurting for submissions.  If they ask for yours, there was something about your piece they liked, or some potential they saw.  This of course doesn't mean you should inundate them with every story you've ever written.  Follow submission guidelines and be professional, but also allow yourself a little pride for your hard-earned "good" rejection.

Treat these positive negatives as clues in the riddle of publication.  One editor wrote that my story came close, and invited me to try again.  So I did.  The second rejection declared that my "worthy" piece made it through several rounds of elimination, and they looked forward to further submissions.  My third try?  "Your manuscript has been accepted for publication."  Yeah!  

So make what use you can of those inevitable rejections, and never give up.      

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Princess Ben," by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Princess Ben starts out with a bang—great voice, great characterization, great dramatic conflict.  It fizzles a little in the middle, and ties up at the end too perfectly for my tastes, but it's still an enjoyable read.

The tale takes place in a land of castles and kings and European-sounding names, and I thought at first I might have found one of those incredibly rare examples of a mysterious genre I can't even name—a pseudo-medieval setting, with perhaps a different culture or pattern of development than our real history, but without any magic to save the day.  It's a setting I love, and love to write, but rarely find.  I thought Princess Ben might fit the ticket, but no luck.  The magic appears several chapters in, and isn't overpowering, but it still would be nice to one day find a fantasy with no fantasy.   

The main character is a princess, but chubby and not particularly sophisticated.  She's fun to watch because she's clumsy and stubborn but thoroughly likeable.  Another great character is the tyrannically perfect aunt, the queen regent, who tries to make a curtseying, superficial, thin-waisted princess out of Ben.       

My rating:  4

Catherine Gilbert Murdock's other books are contemporary young adult fiction, but one of her true loves is certainly juvi and YA fantasy.  On her website (, she says, "When someone recommends a book, I immediately ask, 'Is it for grownups?  Because I don't read those.'  Followed by 'Does it have dragons?'"  Love it.

See her website for more.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nathan Bransford and the dreaded query letter

If you're a writer looking for concrete advice about the publishing world, check out Nathan Bransford's blog.  As a writer and former literary agent, he has lots of good advice, and a funny, user-friendly way of presenting it.  The whole blog is interesting, but pay special attention to the "Publishing Essentials" sidebar, where he links to his posts dedicated to writing query letters, formatting your manuscript, crafting a synopsis, writing query letters, writing query letters, and writing query letters.  In case you didn't get my rather subtle hint, I think query letters are a nightmare.  This site takes away part of the mystique.

Monday, March 14, 2011

March: Lion or Lamb?

I admit that one of the reasons I like traveling is to compare the places I've lived and traveled. Some travelers may say this is a closed-minded no-no, but I love the little differences between countries and regions: how you buy fruit, how the doors lock or the toilets flush, when people say "sorry," how you tip in restaurants, what qualifies as a "hike," what qualifies as "old." And of course, since I've already admitted I'm a nature junkie, I love comparing climates.

It's March now, one of those supposedly fickle seasons. Here in Arizona, fickle means that one day it's coolish, the next it's warm. We might even hit 90 degrees F (32C) this week. It made me think back to this time last year in the Czech Republic.

Mid-March in the Czech Republic:  In like a lion

Mid-March in Arizona:  out like a lamb
Last year in the Czech Republic, skiing was still on our minds.  Winter hikes.  Snow sparkling like diamonds in the cold sun.  Scarves and boots and the dream of spring.

This year in Arizona, I've picked 200 pounds of lemons the last two days--in sandals and short sleeves--while the heady sweet smell of citrus blossoms puts the dread of summer temporarily out of my mind.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Best places to visit in Europe

"What's your favorite place in Europe?" people always ask me. I can't answer. Europe's too big--far bigger than its actual geographical size would lead you to believe. I could name fifty of my favorite places in Europe, but one? Impossible. When people insist, I usually pick a broad region like Southern Germany or The Czech Republic, and still feel like I'm lying.

Finally I decided I needed at least a top ten list, so I wrote an article for Helium, "Top Ten Places to Visit in Europe." It took longer to narrow down the choices than it did to write the article. When I read it again today, I marveled at all I had left out. Still, it's a good overview of what Europe has to offer, a mix of famous historic cities and small romantic towns.

If you're planning a trip, be warned: this article might make you wish you had twice as much time to spend on the continent. If you're a veteran of European travel, compare your list to mine. They'll probably be completely different. That's one of the things I love about travel: you can never see it all.

Read the article here:
Top Ten Places to Visit in Europe --

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Five words say it all

Conveying a real message in only five words is a great test of wit, and a good exercise for writers.  Five Words tm is a cool blog where every week you'll find a new prompt.  Your response must be five words--no more, no less.  The blogger picks a winner, but you can view all the clever entries.  Try it out yourself this week.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Finding Autumn

I'm a nature junkie when I travel.  More and more I avoid the museums and churches and look for parks, trails, national wilderness areas.  I'm not talking extreme sports or power hiking.  I'm just talking about long leisurely walks in nature.  Maybe if I had grown up in a "real" climate, instead of the Arizona desert, things like trees with leaves and rivers with water wouldn't have such a hold on me.  Maybe I wouldn't pine for the stark black and white of a winter forest, the electric green of real spring.  The sun wouldn't be my enemy.  I wouldn't have to move to other continents to find autumn.  And maybe I wouldn't take three thousand pictures of trees.

The impossible beauty of Czech winter
The flaming glory of autumn in the Czech Republic

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Louis Sachar's "The Cardturner"--and bridge

I just finished reading "The Cardturner," by Louis Sachar.  It's a young adult novel about bridge. Yes, bridge, that game people laugh about because they seem to think only little old ladies play it.  The reviews all talk about what amazing talent Sachar possesses to be able to make a game of bridge sound interesting.  I have a feeling these reviewers don't play bridge.  Because the game is fascinating. 

You can rehash bridge hands like football fans rehash plays.  I know.  I played bridge today at the adult center before teaching my evening ESL class, and when I got home—five hours after I played my last card—all I wanted to do was talk about the interesting hands and the bidding catastrophe on the first table.  I must have talked for fifteen minutes.  Luckily my listener is learning the game.  Otherwise it would have sounded like gibberish. 

The game is crazy-complicated, rivaled in difficulty and addictiveness by no other game I know—and I know a lot.  One of my bridge friends plays six days a week.  Many have played twice a week for fifteen years.  And yet they never tire of it.  In "The Cardturner," characters still remember notable hands twenty years later.

That said, I understand how a non bridge player, or especially a non card player, might find Sachar's book confusing or dull.  He does set off the detailed bridge sections so you can skip them if you want, but I have to admit they are some of my favorite parts. 

At times the story feels like an excuse to have a book about bridge, rather like some historical fiction writers just want an excuse to show off their research, but the mysterious back story and the clever interactions of the characters are enough to keep the book going.  If you're a bridge fan, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read.  If you're not a bridge fan, you just may become one. 

I admire Sachar for attempting such a book, and thank the publishers for taking a risk on it.  It would be a shame if bridge were to die out.  Few people of my generation play it, and I fear the next generation will see even fewer, though I heard Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have teamed up to try to encourage teens to learn the game. 

After all, you know all those little old ladies who play bridge?  I'd bet you that part of the reason they've survived to be so old, yet so razor sharp, is the brain exercise they get from this fantastic game. 

My rating:  4

Louis Sachar has written many books for kids and young adults, including Holes, a twisted and magical tale of adventure and fate and lots of digging.  Check out his website at