Friday, September 26, 2014

Earn the Pink: A Breast Cancer Awareness Month Challenge

I find myself dreading October 1, the day the world turns pink.
The month-long campaign for breast cancer research and education is an astounding success in terms of raising awareness and money. That I will admit. But it has become an event. A celebration. Pink, pink pink.
Everywhere I look, I see pink.
It’s hard to witness when my sister is on her third battle with breast cancer, which has now invaded most every part of body. Cancer will be her constant companion. She will spend the rest of her life beating it back whenever it threatens to establish primary residency.
I cringe at the constant reminders.
I wish I could turn off the lights for just one month so I wouldn’t have to see it.
 The pink.
But I can’t do that. I have to experience this month, regardless.
So I started thinking about what I can do to ease the stress, what all of us can do.
How about this?
Instead of posting ribbons to our Facebook profiles, crying over survivor stories and wearing pink t-shirts, sneakers and hats, why don’t we do something about it? Do something to help save ourselves, our relatives and our friends?
Why don’t we each make a positive change and become an example?
It doesn’t have to be a huge change. It can be as small as doing a few crunches in the morning to tighten those abs, or switching out a morning bagel for a bowl of oatmeal, or promising to start each day with one positive thought.
It’s that easy.
Those are the little things that can make a big difference. They can make us healthier – less likely to become victims, and stronger in battle should it break through our defenses. These are changes we can talk about with others, encouraging them to follow our leads.
Post it on Facebook, chat about it in the office, tweet it.
We don’t know what caused my sister’s cancer.
She’s always taken good care of herself. I suspect environment played a role. She lives in Southern Jersey in an area where cancer rates are unusually high. But even as she holds her head to stop the pounding, or clenches her stomach to ease the nausea, she’s trying harder. She’s working to improve her way of living – her diet, her attitude and her fitness.
She is fighting with everything she can.
So go ahead and cheer her on with pink flags, pom-poms and ribbons.
We all want to know someone is thinking of us, and I’m certain that helps.
But jump in and fight, too. Prepare for battle and arm yourselves well. Don’t let breast cancer have it easy. Wear the pink glow that comes with a brisk walk, or after a good night’s sleep or when you look in the mirror and tell yourself life is good.
Make pink the color of your battle uniform, not just your d├ęcor.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bye-bye Kindle Fire; Hello Kindle Paperlight: In search of a mentally healthier diet

I thought I was done with e-books, that for me, they were a passing fad.
My Kindle Fire often lost its charge due to lack of use. I found myself attracted to it only when I had writer's block and, even then, I ignored the books I'd bought, seeking something more mindless. I played Angry Birds, determined to get three stars on each level.
Then, one day, one of our seven-year-olds burst into tears. His refurbished Kindle Fire has lost its ability to take a charge. He'd been playing Minecraft with his twin. I let him use mine, figuring I didn't really need it.
And that got me thinking.
My sweet husband had bought me a Kindle nearly seven years ago, soon after they were first introduced. He wanted me to have something I could throw in my diaper bag and take anywhere when the twins were babies. I was starving for mental stimulation at the time. I devoured book after book.
The end came when he replaced my simple reader with a Kindle Fire.
Suddenly, I had all kinds of distractions at my fingertips. Yes, I could read, but I could also play games, check my email and surf the Web. Each time I picked it up, I had to make a decision and, when my brain was exhausted from writing, I chose mental junk food.
I chose Angry Birds.
I fully returned to physical books for reading, but I read only when I consciously made the time, when I knew it was safe to pull myself out of reality and let my mind drift in another universe. With four children and a traveling husband, I found it harder and harder to give myself permission. I read less and less.
My Kindle Fire, I realized, had become a bad habit, much like the handfuls of semi-sweet chocolate chip morsels I would grab from the pantry when I was tired. Angry Birds was junk food for my mind, the temporary boost that left me mentally malnourished.
What would happen, I thought, if I eliminated the temptation?
I took the plunge.
Without allowing myself time to think, I gave my Kindle Fire to my son and ordered the Kindle Paperlight, a lightweight version of the device that does nothing but allow owners to read. With it, I ordered a cover that turns the Kindle on instantly when it is opened.
From the moment I first held it in my hands, I was in love.
This devices calls me. With nothing else to do, it begs for an unread book, forcing me to buy a new one when the last one is complete. I can't help but to comply. It reloads in an instant, and then sits there within reach, begging me to read that book, the only thing it has to offer, even as I sit at my laptop and write.
It's a trick of the mind.
I know that.
But it's gotten me reading again.
I'm floored by the time I wasted on other distractions. With the new Kindle, I worry less that I will become too immersed to read just a few pages at a time because it saves my place when I close the cover and reopens to the very same spot, shouting, "Read me! You have no choice!"
No finding my place when a bookmark slips out. No finding a bookmark when I want to stop. No waiting until bedtime to read because I don't want to be bothered. And, most important, no "home" button that offers a plethora of other choices.
Simple.
I've read three full novels since I received it two weeks ago and I'm also reading a physical book that I keep on my treadmill. The balance between physical books and e-books is back as is the joy of escape.
Perhaps my battle with chocolate chip morsels inspired me. That habit was born with the twins, a product of exhaustion. A few weeks before I ordered the new Kindle, my sister Kathy persuaded me to add two ounces daily of eighty-six percent cocoa bars to help prevent cancer (She is on her third battle and determined to beat it.).
After just a week of healthier chocolate, I realized I hadn't touched the morsels. The craving was gone. I ran out of dark chocolate two weeks ago, forgetting to replace it, but I still have no craving. Nor do I have a craving for Angry Birds.
I have a healthier body and a healthier mind.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why I will not participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge

It's innocent, right?
This whole Ice Bucket Challenge thing?
The Ice Bucket Challenge is all the rage right now on social media. It's raised more than $70 million for the ALS Association in the past year, and the effort, which started with a couple of well-meaning average folks, has all kinds of celebrities and politicians posting videos of their sopped and freezing heads.
The level of awareness it has created for the disease is phenomenal. Just about everybody knows what ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is right now, and lots of people are feeling good about the contributions they've made toward finding a cure.
That's a positive thing.
A very positive thing.
But there is a dark side to the Ice Bucket Challenge that few people seem willing to acknowledge.
It's yet another form of cyber-bullying, a tactic I can't condone, not even for a good cause.
For those who are unfamiliar with the challenge, here's how it works:
You become involved when someone who has completed the challenge tags you on a social media venue like Facebook. Your name is now out there for everyone to see -- all of your Facebook friends and all of your friend's friends.
The expectation is set.
Now you must perform.
The least expensive option is to pour a bucket of ice water over your head and post the video for all your Facebook friends to see. Then you donate a small amount of money to the ALS Association and tag some of your other friends, challenging them to do the same.
The other option is to forgo the chilly water and simply donate a larger amount of money -- usually about $100. That option gives those who are camera shy, suffer social anxiety or who just don't want to pour buckets of ice water over their heads a way out.
All good, right?
But what if -- for whatever reason -- you decide to ignore the challenge?
What kind of person are you then in the eyes of your social media friends?
Your excuse is irrelevant.
If you suffer a level of anxiety that prevents you from posting a video, you have some kind of water phobia and/or you're too broke to make the larger donation, you're not likely to explain that situation to the entire virtual world.
If you get on Facebook and announce that you donate to a zillion other charities or that you have donated plenty to the ALS Foundation in the past and decline to give more at the moment, who is really going to care? You're simply boasting, making excuses.
No matter your reason, you're still a jerk for not accepting the challenge.
That's where the bullying comes in.
The challenge is designed to embarrass or shame those who refuse.
We can shake our heads and deny it, pretend that it's all is fun, that no one is hurt.
But I know that's not true.
I know that because I've had those discussions (in person) with those who have been hurt, people who have good reasons for not participating, but do not feel comfortable publicizing those reasons.
They feel bullied.
They feel stuck.
They feel embarrassed.
They feel ashamed.
The money and the awareness raised for ASL research is a good thing.
But I cannot condone the method.
It is for this reason that I will not accept the challenge if I am tagged nor will I indicate whether I donate or plan to donate to the foundation. The Ice Bucket Challenge has had a good run, but it's time it dried up because bullying is bullying even if it's for a good cause.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Traditional publishing and the gift of patience

A wise woman (my agent) once told me to have patience.
Publishing has changed, she said, and what once took four to six weeks can take months.
I admit.
I thought maybe that was a bit of an overstatement.
But here we are nearly seven months into the submissions process with two passes and four editors still undecided. Well, I say undecided. The reality is that as of last month, they still hadn't read my manuscript. They are busy.
Busy.
Busy.
Busy.
I understand better than ever now the pull toward self-publishing. This age of electronics and technology should have made things easier, and it has in many ways. But it has also added new layers of complications to the publishing process.
Advances in technology have made it easier to bombard editors with manuscripts. In the old days (like less than a decade ago) agents had to be more selective because each manuscript cost money to print and mail. Not so anymore.
Editors and agents are reading manuscripts on their Kindles, their Nooks and their iPads.
They are easy to receive, easy to edit and easy to read.
The savings in paper, printing and shipping costs is undeniable.
For the planet, this is a good thing.
Yeah, for the planet!
But for editors, it means this:
Bigger slush piles.
Heavier workloads.
Higher expectations.
Slower turn-arounds.
And, unfortunately, that's not so good for me.
I have options, and self-publishing is one them. But there's a huge trade-off. Self-publishing has no gatekeepers, no one evaluating manuscripts pre-publication, helping readers decide how to spend their time and money. Successful self-publishers must have more than great books. They must also excel in business, especially in the realms of marketing and promotion, and they must be willing to make huge investments of time.
Um, that's not me.
I don't want to start at the base of the publishing mountain, pushing through all the other climbers and struggling to the top. I don't mind a good promotional workout, but I'd like a lift, please. I'd like the lift to the midway point that comes with traditional publishing via the publisher's credibility with booksellers, readers and reviewers.
I know.
There is a price.
I have to pay with patience.
So here I am, trying to forget the manuscripts that sit in those editors' in-boxes, focusing instead on the novel I just finished, the one that will most certainly need revisions when beta readers pass it back to me.
Here I am, turning back to my first novel, which I shelved for a while, trying to pick up the pace in the first one hundred and twenty pages.
Here I am, thinking up characters, plots and settings for yet another novel.
Here I am re-thinking.
Maybe patience isn't a "price," but rather a gift. Without patience, I'd be out there promoting and marketing self-published novels while juggling my home life of four young kids and a traveling husband. I wouldn't be writing, at least not as much.
Writing is what I love.
So the patience that is necessary for traditional publishing is allowing me to do what I love.
Hmm.
I guess that's a pretty good trade-off.
I'll take it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why bad-mouthing Common Cores is a bad idea

The biggest beef I have with  the newly implemented Common Cores math curriculum in New York State is not with the government. Nor is it with the test creators, the teachers or the administration.
It's with the parents.
I get it.
The language is new, the methods are new, the modules are poorly designed and the test designers desperately need to hire skilled technical writers knowledgeable in math who can develop on-level questions with little or no ambiguity.
Kids are frustrated. Parents are frustrated. Many teachers are going out of their minds.
That's all bad enough.
But then I hear these words expressed in front of those struggling kids:
"Common Cores sucks."
"This is bull."
"If I can't understand it, she's not going to."
"Why bother? They're going to have to get rid of it anyway."
We all want to make our kids feel better. We want them to know they're not alone and that they are not incompetent. But this stuff -- the generic condemnations often peppered with vulgarities -- accomplishes the opposite.
It sends the message that they might as well give up.
It's too hard and they are not smart enough.
It erects a wall between students and their teachers, a convenient and comfortable wall that encourages similar behavior when times are tough. Teachers are deprived of the opportunity to reach these kids and the kids are deprived of an education.
This is all new for us. We don't like that. We can't help our kids as they struggle unless we understand it and there are few opportunities to become educated in the new methods ourselves. It hurts to see a child frustrated and angry by the work and to be unable to help.
For some parents, it's personal. Common Cores is an insult to their own educations. They learned math the old way and they did just fine, so why change it? They become defensive in the wake of new methods, so much so that they can't be objective.
They can't find the good in it.
But there is good in it and there are better ways.
When kids are stuck on particular concepts or terms, use Google. Learn it with them. Make a real effort. Sure, it takes a little longer, but once they know it, they know it. They can build on it and move on. It's all there on Internet and the sense of teamwork is good for parent-child relations.
This was all thrown at teachers. They haven't had time to properly prepare. Modules that should have taken two days require four. They are behind, they are frustrated and they are struggling. Help them and hope that next year will be better.
Put pressure on school districts to provide overview classes for parents and/or free tutoring after school or in the evenings for kids. Make sure your kids know about your efforts so they can see how it's done. If they don't understand something, don't encourage them to give up. Encourage them to pursue it full-force and to discover the learning methods that work best for their needs.
Lobby the right people.
Don't scream at the teacher.
Don't blame the principal.
Don't egg the superintendent's house.
Lobby the state.
Lobby the federal government.
Ask local districts officials what you can do that will be most effective.
Finally, give it a chance.
This isn't evil stuff. There are solid theories behind the Common Cores methods and they make a lot of sense, but I think we all know they could have been implemented much better and with greater care. This is a mess, but don't wash your hands of it and walk away.
It might make parents feel better to engage in screaming matches with the school board, to pull them from final exams, to berate Common Cores, the teachers, the administrators and the curriculum in front of them, but it's a cop our.
Ultimately, our kids suffer.
So don't turn your backs.
Dig in and do your part.
Love, learn, lobby and succeed.
Learn about Common Cores and pick and choose your battles.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Make-up-free selfies: Why breast cancer awareness undermines the movement

My sister is a recent survivor of stage-four breast cancer, her second battle with the disease in eight years. During her chemo treatments -- after she'd traded her hair for scarves -- she experienced an awesome show of support from the staff at the elementary school where she works.
They all wore scarves or hats in her honor.
She was overwhelmed.
With those scarves and hats, her coworkers showed they were thinking of her, that they understood every day she came to work was a struggle and every day she missed work was a disappointment. The hats and scarves were symbolic of the strength, love, prayers and positive energy they offered.
Now imagine that, instead, they all showed up without make-up.
Let's face it.
There is a reason we feel both brave and vulnerable posting make-up-free selfies. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers, especially female books. It would be awesome if the make-up-free movement helped women become comfortable with our natural selves (I know I'm not.), and if society would become more appreciative.
But here's the trouble.
These particular selfies are not posted in an effort to affect change. Rather they are intended as a show of support for those less fortunate than us in terms of their health. We wear no make-up to bring ourselves "down" to their level, the level of people who are suffering and fighting.
We, as a society, do not accept the "natural look" as inherently beautiful. We clearly do not accept it ourselves as evidenced by the fact that we consider posting such a selfie a "brave" act -- a challenge we present to others.
It's done with a gulp and a "Here it goes!"
The intent is, no doubt, honorable.
But here's the message we unconsciously send to those battling breast cancer: "You look like crap, so I'm going to make myself look like crap to make you feel better. See how brave I am? I am even willing to look like you."
I have not quizzed my sister about her feelings on this topic, but I'm pretty sure she would have been overwhelmed in an entirely different way had her female coworkers honored her by wearing no make-up. And if she cried that day, I'm fairly certain hers would be tears of a different kind.
I'm not opposed to make-up-free selfies in general.
Not at all.
In fact, I have nothing but praise for author Laura Lippman who started the movement after an actress was heavily criticized during the Oscars for looking like herself. Laura posted a natural selfie and encouraged other authors to follow suit in an effort to take down some socially created barriers. Built self-confidence. Help females authors support each other.
It worked for me.
With my novels current under submission to publishers, I'll admit that the potential for post-publication photographic attention makes me nervous. I can't help comparing myself to photos of those always-gorgeous looking authors who seem to confident, so put together.
Then I saw this slew of selfies.
I learned that many of those women looked different without make-up, but not in a negative way. The lack of make-up drew my eyes to their smiles, something I had never put much emphasis on previously. They made me smile inside.They made me realize these other authors are just as real as I am.
And that was an awesome feeling.
They were brave to post those selfies, but brave for a different cause.
They were brave in an effort to create change.
While I am absolutely certain the intentions of those who post make-up-free self portraits are honorable and that the posts show an admirable level of braveness and humility, breast cancer awareness or support is just not the right reason.
Do it for yourself.
Do it because it feels good to be free.
Do it to free woman like me who have not yet found the courage.
Do it because you believe it shouldn't require bravery and because you want that to change.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Come play with me: Warming up with memories of Adirondack springs

photo by Karen Arnold
My body ached for spring this morning as I dashed outside in sub-zero temperatures once again to start the van for the trek to school.
The ache was familiar, but this time, new sensations came with it -- sensations of spring in the Adirondacks, where I grew up.
They were so welcome, those memories, and they awakened  in me hope for warmer days to come.
I'd like to share that hope with you:

Pussy willows.
The dance of extreme temperatures brushing against my skin as warm air swoops over the icy remains of snow, lifting the cooler air and swirling with it.
Tapped maples.
Building dams with pebbles and stones in the road-side creeks formed by run-off from the banked snow.
T-shirts and sleds.
Car horns beeping at my young frame as I squat in the road for better access to those temporary creeks.
Robins.
Racing twigs in the miniature white-water rapids, eliciting more beeps as I run along the road, following them on their journeys.
Wet, squishy moss.
The joy of walking from home through downtown, touching only pavement with my shoes.
Rain.
Kicking up dust on pavement fringed by receding snow.
Pussy willows.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Writing for ... glamour?

I emailed an author a while back for information about her experiences with a publisher who was interested in one of my novels. She insisted I call her immediately and sent her phone number.
The reason for her urgency?
Apparently, the publishing world had deceived her.
Authorship wasn't glamorous at all, she said, and she suggested I get out of the novel-writing business before I suffer similar disappointment. Her advance was small, her sales were slow and she wasn't becoming famous.
What?!
It took me a while to respond.
First, I thought she was joking.
Then, I thought she must be insane.
Finally, I realized she was quite serious.
So, I laughed.
It never once occurred to me to pursue fiction for celebrity status. Nor did I ever consider the profession "glamorous." I expect to spend every penny I make on my first published novel (and then some) promoting it, so I certainly am not anticipating wealth.
Where did this illusion come from, I wondered?
How could someone who managed to write a novel, find an agent and land a publishing contract remain so ignorant to the business for so long?
So I started paying attention and this is what I found:
Novel writing has its celebrities: JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James are rolling in cash. What so many people fail to recognize, however, is that most of their money comes from movie options, movie royalties, etc.
They were popular writers before their novels became movies and probably made some admirable amounts of cash, but glamour struck when their novels hit the theaters and their incomes reached seven to ten digits.
In fact, many of their fans are not even avid readers.
Take the woman who excitedly told me someone had entrusted her with the ending of a Harry Potter film he was working on. She was thrilled to have such privileged information. Giddy, even.
Little did she know everyone who'd read the series was already privy to the end.
Unfortunately, the attainment of millionaire or billionaire status is not the norm among authors, though many sell movie options (the exclusive rights to a film production company to someday make a movie of the novel if ever they feel like it) for perhaps $100,000 or so per novel.
Success like JK Rowling's is probably one in a million, if not more.
But those are the writers we hear about.
Those are the stories we know.
Add to that the magic of social media, and forces behind the misconceptions quickly become clearer.
Search for "author" on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, any of those sites and face-upon-smiling-face will appear. Promote, promote, promote. That's the buzz word in the writing world these days.
A self-published author with sales of ten can appear to be a celebrity simply because he or she has created that illusion via social networking, web pages and blog tours. What looks glamorous is often the result of a ton of effort and, sometimes, loads of money, on the authors' parts.
All this was starting to make sense to me.
I was beginning to understand the star-stuck author.
But then came the kicker: House Hunters International.
I rarely watch television during the day, but I was sick the other day -- can't-get-off-the-sofa sick -- and I needed something mindless to occupy me. So I chose House Hunters International, intrigued by the fact that its focus on a crime fiction writer.
According to the narrator, the husband gave up everything to follow his wife to Australia, where she had an opportunity to promote her novels. That was the first thing struck me as odd. Why move to Australia to promote her novels?
Couldn't they just visit?
Next, I noted they were leaving behind a 7,500-square-foot home in Texas.
Then, they set a budget of up to $4,000 for rent.
On a writer's salary?
Surely, I must have heard of this woman.
I researched her, figuring she was someone famous who had slipped past my radar.
Nope.
She published her novels through CreateSpace, a self-publishing company and a choice many writers make who want full control of their work. Her novels are far from best-sellers and I'd never heard of her.
So how could they afford this?
After further research, I found an article from an Australian newspaper. According to the interview, she and her husband were leaving Australian because his temporary job appointment had ended. She had sold 1,000 of her six novels overseas, for a total of what?
Maybe $3,000 in two or three years?
Surprise.
The producers had lied, further enforcing the illusion that writers live glamorous lives and make tons of money.
Here's the truth.
I know many glamorous writers. But they are not glamorous because they sold a bunch of novels, made a ton of money and are recognized in supermarkets worldwide. They are glamorous because that's who they are.
They are kind, charming, witty women and men who write with passion, not with dollar signs in their eyes. They are personable, helpful and accessible. They love their readers. They love their art (though who wouldn't mind seven-digit checks for doing what they love!).
The woman I called didn't have that.
And I doubt she ever will.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Death: Getting it Right

The guy in the black clothing sneaks up behind his victim, slips his large hands around her throat and squeezes.
She desperately reaches for her throat, weakens and drops dead.
The teenager is dead on the pavement, blood gushing from the hole in his chest.
A masked man walks into a convenience store, whips our a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots the woman who tries to stop him, blowing her head off.
I cringe.
I don't want to read these novels anymore.
I don't stop because the scenes are frightening, shocking or gross.
I can handle that.
I stop because I have lost my suspension of disbelief.
The death scenes are impossible.
Inaccurate.
Unreal.
It takes about five minutes to die from asphyxiation and it's a messy death, with the victim in panic mode, fighting with huge doses of previously unknown adrenaline for his or her life.
Hearts stop beating when people die, so blood stops flowing.
Nine-millimeter bullets might make small messes inside their targets, but not outside.
They certainly don't blow heads off.
I don't want to be that writer -- the writer who loses readers who are familiar with guns, medicine or death.
And it's amazing how many people know that stuff.
That's why I appreciate people like D.P Lyle.
I met D.P. Lyle in August at Killer Nashville, a conference for mystery writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I listened to him speak, chatted with him, bought two of his books and became a fan of his blog and podcast, Crime & Science Radio.
Dr. Lyle is a cardiologist, a novelist, a writer of nonfiction and a medical consultant for authors. He has worked as a consultant for such television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
His expertise is a big part of the reason I attended Killer Nashville, to improve my knowledge of forensics.
To get it right for my own peace of mind and for readers.
Every mystery writer needs a D.P. Lyle.
Who is yours?