Tool For Tuesday: How To Make Decisions

Maya Angelou on making decisions.

Maya Angelou on making decisions.

In 2010, I wrote a blog about making decisions when one of my daughters was trying to figure out what to do with her life. (We all seem to ponder that question rather frequently.) I suggested that act like a cave-woman. Gather information the way that cave-dwellers gathered berries. Be a forager. Research. Ask questions. Take notes like a reporter. Then wait.

But here is more to think about. When it comes to making decisions, are you a presto or a procrastinator? Do you make immediate, instant decisions, or are you afraid your decisions won’t be perfect so you procrastinate?

I confess I’m a presto decision-maker. I err on the side of making an instant decision and then rue about it. I know I need to s-l-o-o-o-w way down. I’ve learned it’s best not to make decisions in the midst of a crisis and to wait. (I’m never good with that.)

People who procrastinate about decisions often enter into paralysis. Not good, either. There are few decisions that are life-threatening. Sometimes, we’re so busy thinking, “Should I move to Alaska? Should I marry Oscar Shlumperdink? Should I have a child?” For those huge life-changing decisions, we always get our answers when the time is right. We don’t have to force the issue. We can just keep living as best as we can today and the answer comes to us really naturally. Intuitively.

It’s more important how we make a decision than what decision we make. Here are six things we can do before making decisions.

Check our motives. Are they for our highest good?

Ask questions.

Gather information.

Write down the pro’s and con’s.

Speak to a trusted friend.

Pray. Then sleep on it. If the answer did not come to you clearly, then you might want to wait a day or two. If you are still waffling, wavering and wondering, then act like the hero of your own life. Do something. Sometimes we need to act less like our usual selves to become more ourselves. Positive acts build self-esteem.

And then, make the decision and then let go of the outcome. We are only responsible for the effort. We can only do the best we can do at the time.

Tool For Tuesday: Make a decision and then trust that the universe will support your dreams. Expect a miracle.

Here is a great blog post on decisions and making the right choice.

And, as always, this is from Malcolm Gladwell.gladwell quote

 

Posted in Be Less You To Be More You, Being a Hero In Your Life, miracles, Tool For Tuesday | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

How to Write a Novel Synopsis. Seven Tips, Do’s and Don’ts. Bonus! Synopsis Samples.

My college roommate and dear friend, Mary Eldred, made sure I sat down and wrote when I was supposed to write. Do you have a friend or writing buddy you can call on?

My college roommate and dear friend, Mary Eldred, made sure I sat down and wrote when I was supposed to write. Do you have a friend or writing buddy you can call on?

How do you write a synopsis for a novel? This is almost (almost) harder than writing your novel. But there’s a form to follow and that makes it easy.

OK, so you wrote a novel. Bravo! You have (I’m hoping) already sent it to people you trust to read the book and comment on it. You have sent it to an editor, who sees things in your manuscript that you simply can’t see. (Editors are like flashlights, shining light into the dusty darkness under the bed.) I’ve posted about how to write query letters to literary agents here. You’ve managed to find a few agents who are keen to see part (or all) of your novel. They might ask for a synopsis. What the…? You might be thinking. Why can’t agents just read the whole darn thing?

Because (hate to break the news to ya) agents just are not that interested in us. They don’t have that much time. More importantly, a synopsis helps a reader see if writers know what the book is about. It has to tell the book’s story. A synopsis is a spoiler alert. That means, you have to tell the agent what happens in your book. (Do not worry. Agents do not steal good ideas and then write the book. If they could do that, they would be writers as well as agents.) It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, the synopsis is all the same.

Here are seven key points to remember:

1. Always keep the synopsis in present tense. (That holds true even if your novel is in past or future tense.)

2. Write short snappy sentences.

3. Introduce the characters one by one. Make each character’s name in ALL CAPS. Say what happens to them.

4. Make it single-spaced, no more than two pages.

5. Have simple paragraphs, not more than a few sentences in each one.

6. You can add bits of conversation if it’s short and meaningful, as well as quoting actual words from the book.

7. Have a good ending about what the book’s message is.

Some of you might be thinking, why should I bother at all with this synopsis? Well, it’s true. It is like writing a school paper. It’s not as much fun as writing a book. But if you’re struggling with the plot of your book, a synopsis can help you figure out what happens. Also, writing is PRACTICE. It is vital to write, no matter what. Stir things up. Write the synopsis as a writing exercise. We have to do it. Write it as if you’re simply telling the story.

Here are four samples of synopses (doesn’t that word in plural sound like a sinus condition?) My suggestion is to take your own novel and try to fit it into one of these forms. Let us know how it goes.

This is the partial synopsis of A Remarkable Kindness which I sent to my agent, Steven Chudney, who then pitched and sold it to HarperCollins, to be published in August 2015. (Thank you again, Steven!)

A Remarkable Kindness opens during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, when former Mossad agent, AVIVA SERENO, drives to the cemetery in Peleg, her tranquil beach village in northern Israel, which is now under rocket fire. Aviva is a member of a traditional hevra kadisha, or burial circle. Burial circle members dress the dead in shrouds and prepare them for their final journey following ancient, sacred tradition. Now, Aviva faces the heartbreaking task of … 

LAUREN UHLMANN, a maternity nurse, is another member of the burial circle. She grew up spoiled and wealthy in a Boston suburb. In 2000, hoping to have one last fling with “an exotic someone before dedicating her life to sailing with Republicans,” Lauren has an affair with an Israeli doctor, David Uziel, which leads to…

EMILY FREULICH, Lauren’s best friend, moves from Boston to Peleg in 2002 after her husband left her for another woman. Emily is an independent, quirky artist, the daughter of an amusing Charleston matron and a Czech refugee. Soon after moving to the village, Emily…

A young, idealistic young woman, RACHEL SCHOENBERGER, arrives from Wyoming to volunteer in the village in 2004. ..Wise, frank and funny, Rachel encounters a variety of personalities and experiences as she volunteers in the village’s hotel, in the avocado groves, and helps a Holocaust survivor who runs the local dog kennel…

We will stop here. Oh, there is so much more to my novel. I’m not going to share more because I don’t want to divulge too much. But the end of the synopsis is: that one of these four women “comes to realize that she must accept life on life’s terms, embrace her situation, and do whatever it takes to have a meaningful life…”

 Here is part of my synopsis for my unpublished children’s book, Sam Winger’s Flight to Freedom.

It started as an ordinary morning in Pete’s Pet Shop in Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the spring of 2012. That is, until suddenly, SAM WINGER, a big-beaked, klutzy Quaker Parakeet who’s scared of heights, catches sight of a free-spirited parakeet on the other side of the window. More than anything else, Sam wants to escape the cage where she lives with her loving parents, her three brothers and twin sister. She longs to fly. 

Yet the pet shop owner, grumpy PETE TEMBEL, dreams of selling her and the other animals in his shop. Pete was a childhood friend of JORDAN EHRENFELD, a soldier who was killed in Iraq. Jordan’s widow, CHERYL, is a brave New York City firefighter. CALEB, Cheryl’s son, an athletic thirteen-year-old along with his sister, JADE, a pudgy, thoughtful nine-year-old girl who has a special relationship with Sam. 

The parakeets all talk to one another and to the other animals. And that night, Sam’s parents, MELODY and MORTIMER WINGER, reveal the secret history of Quaker Parakeets in New York, based on a true story…

Here’s a sample of a novel I will never write, which we will call Magic Floss. I just made it up to give you another sample synopsis. 

PRISCILLA LOOBERT owns a company in Des Moines that sells magic dental floss. She has four overbearing sisters who ridicule her regularly, and she leads a lonely, depressed life punctuated by attempts to take yoga classes and become a vegan when she is not eating Java Chip Ice Cream. One day, Priscilla witnesses a man talking to a parking meter, picks up a pair of abandoned gold pumps in the street, and encounters LARRY RAZONAWITZ, a sweet, somewhat mysterious man who hears Priscilla’s oldest sister yelling at her but cannot help her.

In desperation, Priscilla calls a suicide hotline, and the operator finds out she’s a lonely woman with a few extra dollars to spare. The operator, DEAN KLUMPLIE, sends four henchmen from Toledo to Des Moines, where they threaten and extort Priscilla, forcing her to take out money from a cash machine. This complicates her budding relationship with Larry, who’s not as sweet as he seems.

After Priscilla leaves for Hawaii on a business trip, Larry decides to follow her. Upon meeting her, Larry explains that he is in Hawaii on a business trip by coincidence, but he soon admits that he came to pursue a romantic relationship. He kisses her and the pair retreat to a water bed in a hotel room.

After returning home, Priscilla finds Dean and three henchmen who ram their car into hers, mildly injuring her. Normally not confrontational, an outraged Larry attacks Dean and his men on the street, and fights them off despite being outnumbered. He tells them, “I might look like a dork, but I’m Bruce Jenner before he became Caitlin.”

Larry asks forgiveness from Priscilla that night. She forgives him, and they embrace; lastly, Priscilla says, “Life is full of magic if we remember to floss each night.” 

Remember, dear folks, if we want to be writers, we can’t sit around with our friends talking about how we want to be writers and how hard it is, how publishers are not buying books, how people aren’t reading, blah-blah-blah. We gotta go to that blank page and write. Now get to work. Write your mandatory pages today (I recommend at least five pages every day to maintain your speed). And write that synopsis if you want to sell your book. By the way, even if you plan on self-publishing, you still need a synopsis which you can use for your back over flap. See more information here on self-publishing and my Self-Publisher’s Do’s and Don’ts.

Oh, I am just dying to share some advance praise for A REMARKABLE KINDNESS here:

A REMARKABLE KINDNESS, is a story about the bonds of friendship and family; how they are made, broken, and come full circle. Diana Bletter writes with such lush and insightful prose that a foreign landscape and culture becomes warm and familiar. A REMARKABLE KINDNESS explores the power of friendship, love, and ancient traditions, and Bletter’s characters makes you wonder just how far you would go (literally and figuratively) for the people you love.Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Good Neighbor and The Glass Wives 

Bletter brings this quartet of complex, gutsy, smart, passionate women to life with rare delicacy and depth. She also offers a refreshingly nuanced, unsentimental view of Americans who have chosen to make their homes in Israel, going beyond the romance to the women’s very real ambivalence and homesickness, as well as the peril of living in a country too often under fire. Loss and endings are part of this novel’s rich fabric. Gracefully written scenes, as the women prepare a body for burial, make me wish we could all depart from life with such respect and tenderness. Janice Steinberg, author of The Tin Horse

You can already pre-order the book here. And if you prefer, from Barnes & Noble.  Or bookdepository. Please do pre-order. It helps boost sales!

And in the last part of the excellent news, A REMARKABLE KINDNESS will be one of the books featured in the fall promotion at HUDSON NEWS BOOKSTORES, in more than 500 airports around the USA and Canada. Before you board your flight, you can get the book and start turning the pages.

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Tool for Tuesday: Don’t Give Up Your Resentment. (That is, if you don’t want to get better.)

Catherine Ponder: On Giving up our resentment.

Catherine Ponder: On Giving up our resentment.

That’s right. Don’t give up your resentments if you want to continue drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.

Don’t give up your anger if that’s how you want to fuel yourself. If you get an adrenaline rush just thinking bout who wronged you, then don’t give up resentments.

The other day, I talked to my friend Lily who finally, finally gave up her elephant-like resentment about her ex-husband who cheated on her when they were married. For years, she dragged around this resentment. When people suggested to her, “Pray for his happiness, health and prosperity. Pray even through gritted teeth for him,” she shook her head, stamped her feet, and said, “No way am I going to pray for him. He’s the cause of my misery. He did something so wrong to me and I will never forgive him.”

So Lily let her resentment fester inside her. She started getting stomach pains. (See my blog post about how some physical pains are connected to our spiritual and emotional states.) She had a repetitive resentment (from the French, re-sentir, to feel something again and again) toward him that was filling her mind and heart and soul and preventing her from feeling any joy. She was making herself sick with it.

“Can you pray just for the willingness to possibly pray for your husband down the road?” a friend asked Lily.

“Maybe not today, but okay, maybe some day, I’ll be able to pray for him,” Lily said, her armor of self-righteousness beginning to crack just a wee bit. Because she was tired of hurting. Because she wanted to move on with her life.

Why is that even important? It does not mean that what he did was not wrong. It just means that she was willing to let go of the past hurt and stay present in the present.

So each morning she prayed for the willingness. Just to get her mind opened enough to be willing to even consider praying for him. And slowly, she was able to start praying for him. She really prayed for his happiness, health and prosperity. She prayed to be freed of her resentment. And the resentment stopped being corrosive inside her.

But it takes more than just telling ourselves to stop feeling angry at someone or something. We can transform the negative into the positive—that’s the only way to go about getting rid of those feelings that eat away at us. We need to take our mental energy and use it, harness it, make it work for us.

It does not matter if other people recognize or acknowledge that they did something wrong. The point is that we stop living in the past.

Tool For Tuesday: Don’t give up your resentment if you want to stay stuck in the past. But chances are, we are better off if we stay present in the present.

Here are some more powerful affirmations from Catherine Ponder.

Posted in Acceptance, Tool For Tuesday | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

What Really Counts on Memorial Day

Memorial-Day-Graphics-Images-533x400I am writing this post in honor of all loved ones who are defending America.  I am filled with admiration for their sacrifice. In Israel, there is a military draft for young men (three years) and young women (two years). Each Israeli Memorial Day in May, there is a nation-wide siren that goes off and people in the entire country stop whatever they’re doing and stand silently to reflect and pay homage to the military services. It’s like a gigantic game of “Freeze!” No matter where you are, you stop. Even the train stops on the track. It’s a very sad day in Israel.

It’s so important for people to take a moment and pause, wherever they are, to think about people who serve in the American military.

My husband, Jonny, served in the Israeli Military for many years as a combat soldier and then in reserve duty and our children — we have six children — served. I strongly believe that citizens can give back to their country in some form of national service as a sign of respect and gratitude.

And anyone who has family in the military knows that nobody wants to send their sons to war. So we will pray for peace and hope that next Memorial Day, there will be no more grieving families. I salute and send my respect to all military families today.

Speaking of peace, here’s an interview I did with Laura E. Vasilion on “Peace Under the Olive Tree,” in her post, Talking to the World. (Thank you to Tom S for making the connection.)

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Author Michelle Brafman: On Her First Novel, Washing the Dead, and the Tahara Ritual

Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead

Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead

I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Brafman, who’s just published her first novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books). Talk about serendipity. I am not the only one writing about a hevra kadisha (a burial circle) right now. In Washing the Dead, the narrator, Barbara Blumfield, describes how participating in the tahara ritual for the dead sparks her journey toward healing her complicated relationships with her mother and daughter, as well as herself. It’s the spirit of the time—the zeitgeist—that women are suddenly becoming more and more fascinated with this ancient, mostly unknown ritual.

Diana Bletter: You just published your first novel, Washing the Dead. Congratulations! Can you talk about the process—from your first draft to finding a literary agent and a publisher?

Michelle Brafman: Thank you! My road to publication was rather long and winding. It began eight years ago, after I graduated from the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. I sent some short stories to an agent who had just sold a friend’s book. The agent told me that short story collections don’t sell and asked me if I had a novel for him. Of course I said yes, but I really only had a short story entitled “Washing the Dead” that I’d published in Gargoyle and only an inkling of how it might expand. I got down to work and knocked out a draft, although it took me years and dozens of revisions to figure out the heart of this book. I worked with more than one agent and finally found a wonderful person for the project, who in turn found the best home for the book.

Diana Bletter: Can you talk about your own trajectory becoming a writer and how you got the idea for Washing the Dead?

Michelle Brafman: I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my thirties but I’ve always been a collector of stories. Before I began writing, I was a documentary filmmaker and was so taken with the tales that surfaced after the cameras stopped rolling that I had to write them down. I wrote some bad short fiction, but I took classes and improved and then applied to graduate school and started honing my skills. I’m still as committed to learning and growing as a writer.

I got the idea for Washing the Dead from a friend who told me about the tahara ritual. Although I have a decent Jewish education, I was unaware of this ritual, and I became enamored of the beauty and compassion attached to this rite as well as the sensory details of the actual washing and shrouding. Once I discovered the tahara, I knew what I wanted to do with the characters who had been rattling around in my head. I wrote the short story, and the rest is history.

Diana Bletter: Some writers say they write fast and then fill in the details after the first draft. What’s your writing routine? Do you find your characters doing things that surprise you?

Michelle Brafman: I write a rough draft pretty quickly, but it takes time to get to know my characters and in turn flesh out the central conflict of the book. The plot typically remains pretty much the same throughout the drafting process, but I reframe the scenes depending on what I’ve discovered about my characters. In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she describes how a character emerges like an image in a Polaroid photo. I like that. I also think of my characters as people I’ve gotten to know over a period of time, yet who can surprise me by how they roll in various situations.

Diana Bletter: Do you have any suggestions for new writers? Are there any writing exercises you find helpful?

Michelle Brafman: I tell my students the following: Read as much as humanly possible and well beyond your comfort zone. Keep a notebook on your person at all times because you never know when a story will “happen to you.” Seek out mentors who will help you learn the craft and hone your voice, but take your writing as far as you can on your own before you ask for help. Then become a mentor to someone else. Keep your heart and mind wide open. Work really hard, and luck will find you.

I use many different writing prompts with my students, depending on the skill we are working on. My general advice would be to write every single day, even if only for ten minutes or so. Simply making marks keeps the creative pump primed.

Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?

Michelle Brafman: I’m working on a second novel. The setting and structure are entirely different, although once again I’m writing about family secrets and water.

Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog is called thebestchapter, and I write about trying to make the most of each day. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make each day a part of your best chapter?

Michelle Brafman: Thanks for the reminder! I try to take a few moments every day to share at least one laugh with my husband and enjoy the heck out of my kids. My daughter is about to enter high school, my son will become a bar mitzvah next summer, and the time is speeding by too fast. We have our little family rituals and jokes that I treasure, but sometimes I simply listen to them sing or joke with each other in the next room. I also try to connect my friends, via a phone call, a text, or if I’m lucky, a quick cup of coffee or a walk along the Potomac River.

Thank you, Michelle Brafman.

You can find Washing the Dead wherever you buy books. (And I hope you’re still buying books.)

Posted in how to write | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

12 Tips for Mothering On Mother’s Day (MOM is WOW Spelled Upside Down!)

My mother with her granddaughter, Ruby, who's wearing one of my mother's wigs.

My mother with her granddaughter, Ruby, who’s wearing one of my mother’s wigs.

Last Mother’s Day, I wrote about whether it was a happy or unhappy Mother’s Day because it was the first Mother’s Day after my own mother’s death. You can read it here. But today, I want to share 12 tips I’ve learned about mothering throughout the years. I hope they help you. I wish I knew them earlier.

1. Be like a saleswoman. I worked selling Dead Sea products for a boss named Ari Singer, who also happened to be my son. He taught me, “Ask a potential customer a question, such as, “What skin cream do you use?” And no matter what they say, you reply, “Perfect! I want to show you something.” Great salespeople always agree with their customers, no matter what their response. Work with them. It’s like improvisation. Never contradict! Even when a woman told me she only uses Crisco on her face, I said, “Perfect!” and continued with my spiel.

The same rule applies toyour children. Even if your children ask you for something completely unreasonable, say, “Perfect!” or “Great!” and then, “Maybe another day.” Example:

Child: “Can you buy me Sugary-sugar-cinnamon-sugared Sugar Tidbits today?”

Mom: “Perfect! Maybe another time.”

Avoid saying, “No.” No just sends the child spiraling into, “I never get anything…Loobertina gets to have whatever she wants…You’re a bad mother.” So: AGREE and then change the subject. Or say what you will do instead. This keeps the conversation cheerful and avoids arguments.

2. Ask them, “Now or in 5 minutes?” Do you want to turn off the X-box now or in 5 minutes? They’ll always say 5 minutes, as if they’ve won an important point. Then you say, “Okay, so I’ll set the timer and when it rings, you’ll turn it off.”

3. Give your children chores. You are the Mom, not the slave. Your kids need to learn responsibility. Even if you have to re-sweep what your kid just swept, make sure they do it. You can put a daily job chart on the refrigerator. They can do their chores and then do what they want to do.

If they complain about doing the chore, tell them you’ll put on three songs and see if they can do it before the songs end. That’s usually how long a child’s chore should take.

4. Tell your child to talk like a big boy or girl. Avoid saying, “Don’t whine,” because kids are stumped. Say, “Talk like a big boy.” They know how big kids talk. You’ll see, they’ll change their tone of voice.

5. Don’t tell a child, “You’re a bad girl,” for example. Children are always good and pure inside. They might act poorly and display inappropriate behavior. Whatever you can ignore, ignore, and focus on what they’re doing right. You got dressed really quickly. You brushed your teeth when I asked you. Wow, you got along great with your sister. Then, do something with them to reward this appropriate behavior. You can build a tower and add a block each night they behaved right during the day. Or you can give stickers and a big reward after ten, let’s say.

6. Tell your kids to use their words instead of acting out. At the same time, when you speak, use less words. You don’t have to explain everything. You can simply say, “that’s not appropriate.” It’s a big word but they’ll figure it out. It keeps your voice neutral as well.

7. Don’t get involved with your children’s fights. (Unless there’s blood, as my husband Jonny always used to say.) They need to learn how to work things out on their own. You can listen to each side and then say, “I’m sure you’ll come up with a solution.”

8. Teach your children manners. Teach them to shake hands with people and look them in the eye. Teach them how to hold a knife and fork. How to excuse themselves from the table. How to say thank you for the dinner. How to be considerate of others.

9. Make sure they have a routine. Some say that God stands for Good Orderly Direction. Children need a bedtime, a bath time and a story time. Kids like small spaces, just like pets do. Small units of time work best. This goes with the corollary, children like boundaries.

10. Don’t negotiate. Don’t fall into the habit of, “If you do this, then I’ll give you that.” Because after a while children figure it out and then they’ll become master manipulators.

11. What do you want from them? That’s what you need to do as well. You want them to give you respect? Respect yourself. Make sure your partner respects you. Want them to talk to you with respect? Make sure your partner talks to you with respect. Talk to them with respect. Keep your voice modulated as much as possible. Want to get them to watch less TV and read more? Then turn off the TV and don’t watch it. Want them to exercise? Put on sneakers and go out.

12. “Did I tell you today that I love you?” Every day tell them you love them.

Watch these tips with two of my favorite actors on youtube here.

Remember, which adjectives do you want your children to use about your? Me? I want: magical, funny, silly, able to laugh at myself, consistent, strong, loving. What about you?

Happy Mother’s Day. Send in your own tips, questions and comments. Remember, mothers are always perfect because nobody is perfect.

Read an interesting article by Judith Shulevitz on mothers and who has got the market on worrying about the kids.

My mother, Gladys Katcher Bletter, was perfectly imperfect. But her legs were close to perfection. Here they were a few weeks before her death.

My mother, Gladys Katcher Bletter, was perfectly imperfect. But her legs were close to perfection. Here they were a few weeks before her death. You can see the cigarette butts in the ashtray, the boxes, and the plastic bags from her newspapers. Plus, her slippers which my sister, Cynthia, searched far and wide to find for her.

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For Writers: What’s the Best Way to Respond to Criticism? Take it.

stephen kingI read an article in The New York Times about Julie Straus-Gabel, the publisher of Dutton children’s books. When she is editing books, she sends writers—including John Green (The Fault In our Stars)—stinging letters full of criticism and suggestions.

Adam Gidwitz, who wrote the best-selling A Tale Dark and Grimm, said that he both dreads and depends on Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s editorial letters.

“Whenever I get a letter from her, I go through this mourning process,” he said. “The first day, I rage all day. The second day, the tears set in, and I say she’s right, and I’m a terrible writer. The third day I say I’m not a terrible writer, but I can’t write this book. The fourth day, I get to work.”

I’ve been through the exact same thing when I receive letters from editors telling me what I need to work on in my writing, only I skip the mourning and the rage and go write into, “I’m a reeeellly bad writer. I. Can. Not. Do. This.”

When I first sent out my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, my literary agent, Steven Chudney, sent me back an email with everything I needed to change. One of the things he said was the novel seemed too long. Too long? I wanted to laugh. Or cry. Because while I was writing it, I felt like I was pushing out a baby elephant and I couldn’t find enough words. Now, he wanted me to cut what took me so long to write? One chapter, he explained, that took place during a Hanukkah celebration. I liked that chapter. I really didn’t want to let it go. But when I re-read the chapter with an open mind, I had to agree with him.

Still, I asked Steven, “What do I do with the sex scene from that chapter? It’s a really good one!”

“I’m sure you’ll find somewhere else to put it!” he joked.

(I did!)

Then, after several more back-and-forths, and after I dug in andmade all the changes, Steven sent the book to Rachel Kahan, the editor-in- chief of William Morrow. After Rachel accepted it, she went through it again, and wrote notes like this one:

“This scene needs to be fleshed out because it raises a lot more questions than it answers, and if you’re going to split it with the scene in the burial circle, you have to give it more heft so the reader learns something new and there’s some payoff.”

Ouch!

Rachel was right about that scene. I hit the delete button. Cut it completely.

I think that the toughest part for me as a writer is being willing to stay open-minded about my work. If I want to improve my work, I can’t stay defensive. I can’t give the old, “Yes, but…” (Because as my dear friend Maggie used to say, everything after but is bulls- -t.) I have to be willing to look at my writing with fierce eyes, which is often hard to do because I’m so tied in and attached to the story.

That’s where great editors like Rachel steps in. She doesn’t care that I slaved over that one sentence for two hours. If it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go!

When I worked at The Southampton Press as a reporter, every Wednesday we laid out the newspaper for the next day. The production editors pasted the articles on big white boards. If an article was too long, it hung over the board like Rapunzel’s long hair. (Or a bad mullet.) We reporters had to go around with razor blades and slice off extra copy.

My editor, Michael Pitcher, used to joke with me because he knew how much it pained me to let go of my words. “Oh, I know how it pains you to get rid of your fine prose,” he’d say.

But after a while, I started to get used to throwing away whole paragraphs without looking back. I learned that in newspaper writing, the rule is to put the important information in the start of the story. Give the readers the pertinent facts first. The background stuff isn’t important. The same holds for fiction writing. Keep the fluff out.

However, we have to write more than we need. That is the most essential part of the writing process. We won’t know we’ve written too much until we write and write and write and then stop and look back.

We have to write a lot because that’s how our imagination works, spontaneously and fast. If we hesitate, if we start with the false premise that our first draft has to be perfect, then we’ll never start.

Here’s my rule: The first draft is the worst draft.

That idea frees me to write badly. It frees me to write.

When Stephen King was a high school senior, he got a rejection letter from an editor who wrote: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”

That means we have to write more and not less. Write a lot of junk, write freely, and then be willing to look at it and throw a lot of it away.

I’m almost finished for today. The key, dear writer, if you want to publish your work: be willing to write a lot and then be willing to let go of a lot. Be willing to have someone else read your work and suggest changes and then you must go back, work just as hard, and make those changes.

So, what is the best way to respond to criticism? Take it.

Hey, stick around. In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about how accepting criticism as writers also applies with criticism we get about ourselves.

We have to write a lot to get to the kernel of the story. We have to live a lot to have something to write about.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Want To Improve a Relationship? Here’s a Simple Formula That Works Every Time.

Sometimes we can't see ourselves or others clearly. Take off those glasses! Model: Jonny K.

Sometimes we can’t see ourselves or others clearly. Take off those glasses! Model: Jonny K.

Want To Improve a Relationship? Use Algebra.

Even if you don’t get math, this one is easy. Let’s say you know that:

1 + 2 = 3 (Right? I’m assuming that global warming has not effected math, yet.)

So in algebra, you can write that with letters: A + B = C.

But if we just change (A) or (B) we get a different answer.

That’s how it goes with relationships. If we change ourselves, no matter what, the end result changes. The relationship changes but we have to be willing to change first.

The other day, I met an older woman who was holding onto a resentment toward her son-in-law. She just couldn’t let it go. When I suggested that she change how she acts toward him, the woman said sharply, “No way! I’m not going to be the one to change! He should change!”

Pride keeps us from apologizing first. Pride keeps us stuck in self-justification or self-righteousness. Sometimes we wear glasses that make us blind to our own defects.

What’s so bad about apologizing first? Humbling ourselves? Reaching out? Admitting we might be wrong? Too often we’re so busy looking at the other person but as the saying goes, “If you spot it, you got it.” Meaning, if we spot annoying behavior in someone else, chances are we own that same annoying behavior, only we don’t wanna see it.

That woman refused to budge about her own stuff. She’s living in a swamp of negativity. And after I heard her story, and then heard it again, I didn’t feel like hanging around with her anymore. I prefer to stick with people who are open-minded, willing to change, to grow, to learn.

I heard another story about a woman who wanted a number of things from her husband: common courtesy, respect, and non-sarcastic comments. Her friend suggested, “Why don’t you practice those things with him first?”

TA-DA!

She was willing to do that. She tried practicing courtesy (the highest form of grace) and stopped being sarcastic. She changed herself (A) and not only did the end result (C) change but along the way, her husband (B) started being gentler, and more respectful to her.

It has to begin with us. We can’t force anyone else to change. We can’t convince anyone else to change to our liking unless we are willing to look at our own behavior and change as well.

“A man can detect a speck in another’s hair, but can’t see the flies on his own nose.” Mendele Mocher Seforim. (This is the pseudonym of a late nineteenth-century Yiddish writer named Solomon Abramowitsch. His pseudonym in Yiddish means, Mendele the Bookseller.)

Thought for the day: If we want something to change, we have to change.

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Three Messages of the Easter/Passover Bunny

Amalia Singer with the Easter/Passover bunny

Amalia Singer with the Easter/Passover bunny

I was in New York City with Jonny and our six children right before Easter and Passover a few years ago. Since we were living in Israel, the kids had no idea what Easter was, so when we saw a bunny parading nearby, I said to them, “Look! It’s the Passover bunny!”

The bunny heard me saying that, and told us, “I really am the Passover bunny.”

“Really?” I said. “Here’s the test. What comes after ‘Dai, dai…”

And he said, “Eynu!”

That’s the famous song Jews sing at the Passover seder, “Dai-enu,” or it would have been enough for us.

What’s the message? First, there are so many paths to feel a sense of joy and holiness and we can respect all of them. Nobody has the whole truth. We just don’t know. But we can practice mutual respect.

We just don’t know. In matters of faith, there is no such thing as right or wrong. We each define God (or however we choose to define God) in our own special ways.

One of my best friends is a devout Catholic. I’m a committed Jew. We have long, inspirational, spiritual, uplifting discussions about Catholicism and Judaism. I esteem her beliefs; she values mine. Unlike in the rest of the world, where there is so much strife and self-righteousness and horrific violence when it comes to differing religions. One only has to read how ISIS has beheaded Christians to know the devastating crimes committed in the name of religion. In using the word “infidel” to apply to anyone whose spiritual ideas differ from their own.

Another thing I’ve come to understand is that we all have a sense of the divine inside us. How we express that is up to us. We can be creative and write, paint, dance or sing. Nobody else has dibs on expressions of grace, of holiness.

So wherever you are right now, whatever you’re doing, remind yourself that you are a channel for the divine here on earth. And I hope you find some way to express yourself while being tolerant of others, to fill your own well, and to appreciate your life. It is the only one you have.

Posted in Acceptance | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ask Yourself This: Are You a Depriver or an Indulger? And Why Does it Matter?

Pomelo blossoms. Next invention? An aromaphoto, so that you could smell that heavenly aroma.

Pomelo blossoms. Next invention? An aromaphoto, so that you could smell that heavenly aroma.

Are you an indulger or a depriver?

I could come up with a list of questions to help you determine if you indulge yourself or deprive yourself. But this one will do: If you have, oh, let’s say, an hour or two, do you indulge yourself with a simple pleasure – taking a walk, reading on the couch, meeting a friend for coffee – or do you remind yourself of all you need to do and get to work doing it?

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate myself a 7 as a depriver. I am my own meanest boss. I’d rather be writing than doing just about most things. Or reading. (In that order.)

But I decided that I also need to indulge myself because the essence of life, the very life of life, is made up of those moments when we’re doing the fun stuff. That’s what we remember. Not all those hours we were working.

That’s what happens when a goody-goody grows up.

Now I’m letting the tomboy in me have more fun. Which is why I spent part of my free time photographing the blossoms on our pomelo tree. How many of you have tasted a pomelo? It’s a citrus maxima, a citrus fruit, that looks like a bell-shaped grapefruit. But it’s not as juicy and not as sour. Peeling it and eating it like an orange is occupational therapy because it requires a bit of manual dexterity. A low-calorie way to keep your hands busy.

We had one pomelo on our tree last year. This year we have a lot of blossoms but there’s a hamsin brewing – that the wind that sweeps up from the desert – which will probably blow off all the blossoms.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I often write the blogs I want to read. The message for today is:

We must commit ourselves to our work, even if nobody around us understands what we’re doing. We must, as Flannery O’Connor said, wrote in a letter to her friend Cecil Dawkins:
“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.”

So, we need to sit there and do the work. But then we must also give ourselves time to play, to dream, to look at the blue swath of sky, to smell the aroma of a pomelo blossom before it gets blown away.

Pomelo tree in China.

Pomelo tree in China.

It is hard to find the balance but both work and play keep the blues away. We can skip the TV shows that are junk food for the brain and do something fun that we will really nourish our souls. And we can do the work even if we do it badly. Because we only get one chance at life so we better do it right.

What do you think? Are you an indulger or a depriver? Have you ever tried to inch down the scale and become the other? And do you have any writing habits that work for you?

If you have nothing to do and feel like a split deprive/indulge time (first you have to bake, which to me is deprivation, then you get to snack — a definite indulgence) check out this recipe for pomelo citrus bars.

I am allergic to cats but I had to add this photo. Hope it makes you crack a smile.

Pomelo peel on a cat.

Pomelo peel on a cat.

Posted in work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments