Posts Tagged ‘Writing and books’

Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.


Book contract!

February 1, 2022

Did you hear the shouts reverberating through your modem?

I have a publisher!

I’ve signed a contract with Hypatia Press to publish my two-book fantasy series, Shaken Loose.  

No, this is not a specifically Jewish book. But it did indirectly grow out of some of the issues we’ve explored together in this blog—such as the contradiction between a supposedly just God and a universe so full of injustice. 

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing Shaken Loose in 2014, at which point I envisioned a single book. I began querying agents in 2017 with no luck, did several rewrites, realized it needed a sequel, queried more agents with no luck, hired a developmental editor and did more rewrites, gave up on agents, and finally moved on to small presses that allow you to submit without an agent.

Now here we are at the start of 2022, and these books finally have a home. Hypatia Press is a newish small press dedicated to “quality irreligious publishing,” which is a perfect description of Shaken Loose

This is Connecticut. Not my book. Photo: Ilana DeBare

It’s set in a dystopic afterlife—a Hell that includes both truly evil people and anyone from throughout history who was not a baptized Christian. Yep, that would include me. And billions of other folks. Maybe you? It’s more fascinating than grim as the modern, secular Bay Area protagonist encounters 4th century Hun tribesmen and Chinese revolutionaries and Jim Crow-era segregationists and, of course, Satan. 

And viewed today—as opposed to when I started writing back in 2014—it’s a relaxing, almost benign kind of dystopia! There is absolutely nothing in there about Covid or Trump or climate change. 

Maybe this is the start of a new genre: “Escapist dystopia.”  :-) 

The tentative publication date is summer 2023. Now I start a new stage of this process—marketing. I need to create an author web page, solicit promotional blurbs from other writers, develop a social media strategy, maybe start an additional blog that is more focused on fiction than this one. Not as much fun as writing the actual books, but at least I have a long lead time to work on it.

I’ll keep you posted! And at some point, probably early next year, I’d love your help in spreading the word.

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”




“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

“Reading” audiobooks

March 11, 2012

Last week I finished listening to my second audiobook.

I listened to my first one last summer, when I drove down to L.A. to pick Sam up from the AIDS LifeCycle ride. Normally I don’t spend enough time in the car to  do much more than turn on NPR. But my new job involves a commute across town of about 15 minutes, which is just enough time to plug in an iPod and listen to a bit of an audiobook.

Image by Jeff Daly / Creative Commons

I’m intrigued by how the experience of listening to a book differs from that of reading a book. (Particularly when the listening coincides with trying to drive, observe surrounding traffic, watch out for sudden movements by pedestrians and bicyclists, etc.)

I’ve loved the two audiobooks I’ve listened to so far — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot  and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, both nonfiction.

I had also tried a third audiobook, Bill Bryson’s At Home, and while I’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other writing, the audiobook didn’t work for me at all. I stopped after about a chapter and a half.

So what makes for a successful audiobook?

The Bryson book, a discursive history on the furnishings of the modern home, didn’t have enough narrative flow to keep me focused in the car. It rambled along through various interesting factoids and digressions but had no clear direction. I would get distracted by a traffic maneuver and then re-focus with no idea what he was talking about or where it was going. Unlike a print book, the audio version didn’t let me glance ahead to see how long a particular digression would last and whether I wanted to skip over it.

Both the Henrietta Lacks and Glass Castle books had much stronger narratives. Glass Castle is a memoir about an extremely bizarre and dysfunctional family, where the author manages to convey both the horrific nature of her childhood and also the love she felt for her irresponsible, alcoholic, narcissistic, eccentric parents.

Henrietta Lacks is a brilliant combination of scientific and social history — interweaving the story of HeLa cells, a set of fast-growing cancer cells that have been the basis for huge quantities of medical research over the past fifty years, and the dirt-poor, barely-educated African American family from whom the cells were taken with no explanation or consent. The writer tells both the family and medical stories in the context of her own journey — tracking down the source of the original HeLa cells, and trying to build a relationship with the justifiably suspicious and aggrieved members of the Lax family.

In any case, they both had plots. 

But they were also both non-fiction. Which is interesting, since probably 90 percent of what I read is fiction.

I’ve found myself reluctant to choose fiction for audiobook listening. With fiction, I care a lot about the way things are written. If there’s a nice phrase or image, I want to stop and read it again or savor it. Which I can’t do while my iPod is babbling merrily on into the next paragraph and I’m steering the car around  a double-parked garbage truck on Alcatraz Avenue.

I suppose I could listen to novels that are more plot-driven than literary, where I wouldn’t care much about the writing — detective novels and so on.  But somehow I haven’t wanted audiobooks where I would get too caught up in the plot, since I have to turn them off after each 15-minute commute.

When I’m reading a print book in bed, I can just keep going if it’s really gripping. (Haven’t we all had the experience of staying up until 1 a.m. with a novel we just can’t put down?)  But again, you can’t do that with an audiobook on your daily commute.

Plus nonfiction makes me feel like I’m doing something “productive” with my otherwise useless commute time. I’m learning facts about something in the real world. This is completely spurious. But it appeals to my multitasking, Type-A, overachiever self.

So… my ideal audiobook, it seems, is a well-written, accessible work of nonfiction with a strong (but not too strong!) plot or narrative.

Any recommendations?

And do you find that your reading tastes vary between print books and audiobooks?

Come to think of it, if you use a Kindle or similar e-reader device, has that influenced the types of books you like to read?


September 20, 2011

Abracadabra is Jewish! Who knew?

I came across this tidbit while reading the late Rabbi Alan Lew‘s wonderful book, “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.”

More on the book in another post.

But Lew notes that the well-worn magician’s phrase has its roots in the phrase avrah c’dabrah in Aramaic, the day-to-day language during the Second Temple period and the language in which much of the Talmud was written, as well as the Kaddish prayer. Lew wrote:

The Aramaic words Avra c’dabrah mean ‘It came to pass as it was spoken,’ a popular talmudic dictum that expressed the widely held talmudic belief that things do indeed come to pass because they are spoken, that speech has the power to cause the world to come into being.

The linguistic roots of those words are the same as their Hebrew counterparts. Avr/ovr — to pass. As in Ivri’im or “Hebrews,”  the people who passed over the river.  Dbr/dvr — to speak, or word. As in d’var Torah or “word of Torah,” the commentary given at Shabbat services about the weekly Torah portion.

Lew brought this up to show the importance of speaking one’s repentance aloud as part of high holidays — the power of speech to make things real and change the world.

But you can see how “It came to pass as it was spoken” could also easily become an incantation to make magical things happen, especially if you invert the tense — “It will come to pass as it is spoken.”

Wikipedia says the first known reference to Abracadabra-the-charm came in the 2nd century C.E., in a Roman medical book that advised malaria sufferers to wear an amulet containing the word written in a triangle:

A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B – R – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B – R
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D
A – B – R – A – C – A
A – B – R – A – C
A – B – R – A
A – B – R
A – B

Wikipedia also followed where my mind had quickly gone, to Harry Potter. In J.K. Rowling’s fictional universe, one of the blackest spells is Avada Kedavra, which causes immediate death of the person at whom it is directed. One of Rowling’s brilliant qualities is her ability to draw on linguistic traditions to create incredibly evocative names — Draco Malfoy as Harry’s bad-guy student nemesis, Severus Snape as a menacing teacher, Voldemort as the personification of evil.

Avada kedavra is another example of this. It draws on the hackneyed phrase that’s a part of every preschool magic show, but turns it dark by changing the “b” to a “v” and thus making it sound like “cadaver.”

And, apparently, Rowling was aware of its Aramaic roots, even if her translation is a bit different from Lew’s. Wikipedia again:

During an audience interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 15 April 2004, series author J. K. Rowling had this to say about the fictional Killing Curse’s etymology: “Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means ‘let the thing be destroyed.’ Originally, it was used to cure illness and the ‘thing’ was the illness, but I decided to make it the ‘thing’ as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.”

Random writing tips from Squaw

August 13, 2011

I’m back from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, feeling a bit like a space station astronaut returning to Earth, exhausted and wobble-legged. Apparently the stock market crashed and rebounded while I was out in orbit. What else happened — wars declared and resolved? Celebrities discovered and abandoned? The Messiah came, looked around, went for a Frappucino?

After my last blog post, some folks asked me to share what I learned about writing from Squaw. Mostly, I gained some new lenses through which to view the sections of my novel that need help. I think the three hours we spent each day critiquing each other’s manuscripts also made me a more attentive reader of other people’s work. (But we’ll let my writing group be the judge of that.)

Here are some snippets of my notes from the week. Pulled out of context, they seem random and trivial. And if you’ve been through an MFA program, they are probably old hat. But they were new and useful to me:

  • Dialogue in fiction is different from dialogue in real life. Tighter, sharper, with every exchange adding to the story in some way. In real life, people spend a lot of time saying things like “Nice earrings.” ” Thanks.” “Where’d you get them?” “Macy’s.” “Really?” “Uh huh.” But if you fill your novel with such stuff, readers won’t need Sominex. Novelist Janet Fitch pointed out that good dialogue is about conflict, reveals character, and illuminates the relationship between the speakers (who is stronger, weaker etc.) “In real conversation, people do everything to avoid conflict,” Fitch said. “In fictional conversation, you want to find the conflict.”
  • Characters who are most similar to you — modeled on you, the author — tend to be flat.
  • The most interesting characters are internally conflicted.
  • Every sentence can probably be shorter. (Thank you, Max Byrd.)
  • When describing a place, don’t just describe that place: Give the protagonist’s sense of that place. (Is that shady forest menacing or relaxing? It’s in the eye of the beholder.) “Use tactile perceptions to tell us about the internal life of a character,” Sands Hall told my workshop group.
  • The final item in a string of adjectives, nouns or anything else is the most powerful. “If you make a list,” Byrd said, “place the most important item at the end.” I flashed on the final line of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
  • Each scene needs to change your main character in some way. This was Janet Fitch again, leading the workshop session that discussed my manuscript. “Once a protagonist has been through a scene, he or she can’t go back to the way they were before,” she said. “If they can go back, you don’t need the scene. A scene needs to start in one place emotionally and end in another.”
  • And more from Fitch: Don’t push the re-set button in fiction. Meaning, don’t have one scene after another where the same thing keeps happening to your protagonist. (I.e., the heroine gets attacked by gnomes and is left injured and confused. Then she gets attacked by rabid wolverines and is even more injured and confused. Then she gets dumped by her boyfriend and BOY is she injured and confused.)
  • Jason Roberts on writing essays: “Every essay addresses a question. But if you have a complete answer, it’s not an essay. It’s a manifesto.”
  • Time and again, we were told the key to being a writer is… writing. That means writing every day, every week, for years, regardless of whether your manuscripts are praised or rejected or utterly ignored by the outside world.
  • Mark Childress: “Writing is about putting your butt in that chair and outlasting the urge to read the New York Times cover to cover or to sign up on Facebook again under a new name.”
  • Anne Lamott: “A writer’s life is about nothing happening for a very, very long time except you sit down in the same place.”
  • And Ron Carlson: “The Internet is the enemy of all writers. Just stay away from it until after two in the afternoon. The Internet is an entertainment and research device for after two in the afternoon.”

Of course, while giving us a week’s worth of rules, the Squaw Valley staff also told us that any rule can be broken for the right reason.

Lynn Freed reminded my workshop group of the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. 

At Squaw

August 9, 2011

This place is like Disneyland for writers. Only with Disneyland, you have one, maybe two, days of hyperventilating dawn-to-dusk overstimulation before your parents stuff you back in the car and make you go home. And here it goes on for a week.

I’m up in the Sierra at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, day three out of six. As my husband put it in an email, “Sounds like your idea of heaven.”

The view from the conference / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

There are maybe 160 writers here, many from the Bay Area but also many from as far away as Boston and Atlanta. It’s a conference, not a retreat. From 9 in the morning until 10 at night we are talking writing.

The days start with a round-table workshop from 9 to 12.  A dozen of us read and critique short manuscripts from two people each session, led by a different staff person each day – a professional writer, agent, or editor.

The afternoons are filled with three hour-long talks or panels on different aspects of craft. Yesterday we heard Diane Johnson (“Le Divorce”) talking about endings. Then came a panel that included Mark Childress, Dagoberto Gilb, Louis B. Jones and Leslie Daniels talking about creating characters. The previous day there was a fabulous talk by Janet Fitch (“White Oleander”) on dialogue.

Panel with Janet Fitch, Malcolm Margolin, Joy Harris, Andrew Tonkovich and Ben George / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

Then there are more talks, or readings. Dinner. An evening presentation on still more aspects of writing; two evenings ago it was Childress and Anne Lamott in conversation about the life and craft of writing.

And did I mention that the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is in Squaw Valley? Meaning we are in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by great grey knuckles of Sierra peaks. I’m staying in a rented house with three other participants, and every morning Iook up from my bed to see pine trees.

There are a couple of outstanding and unusual things about this gathering. I suspect it is not an accident that it is called the “Squaw Valley Community” rather than “Squaw Valley Conference.” The atmosphere is friendly, supportive, collegial rather than competitive, pretentious, one-upping. Pretty different from what I remember of my undergraduate writing classes at Harvard!

The level of both critique and writing has been impressively high. In my workshop, people have commented on the work with both insight and respect. No bloody knives. It’s interesting how people writing in vastly different styles (experimental hard-boiled crime; light-hearted coming of age while travelling in Italy etc.) are able to see the other’s work for what it aspires to be, and offer helpful, supportive criticism.

We heard from two panels of agents and editors talking about the publishing industry today, but on the whole the focus is much more on the craft of writing rather than the business of writing.

Tomorrow my own chunk of novel gets the spotlight in our workshop. The next day, I have a one-on-one critique session with writer Elise Blackwell.

But even without anyone having said a word yet about my work, I’ve already learned a ton about dialogue, setting, etc. Just listening to our group critique other people’s chapters that first day allowed me to look at my own chapter in a completely new light. I could go home right now and have fodder for weeks of rewriting.

And this is just day three of six….

The valley of Squaw Valley / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

Muddle in the middle (of my novel)

July 24, 2011

I’m trying to improve the middle of my novel. When I realized it needed revision, this was the section that called out, “Lifeguard! Police! Somebody! I need help!”

I feel confident in my beginning. And I love my ending.  So it’s just the muddle —  I mean ‘middle” — of the book that needs work.

This isn’t an uncommon problem. Lots of writers run into problems with middles. (Well, so do lots of non-writers but that’s a different kind of middle and it can be addressed through exercise and Weight Watchers.)

James Scott Bell, in his book Plot & Structure, writes:

Writers sometimes refer to the infamous ‘Act II problem,’ which boils down to this: How do you keep the reader interested through that long portion of the novel?

Photo from

In my case, I’m still trying to diagnose the problems. I’ve got a bunch of scenes that seem to cascade without enough emotional differentiation. The movement is all in one direction – down, down, down – rather than down-up-down-down-up etc.  There are also probably too many instances where I describe something rather than show it. And feedback from my writing group this week made me take another look at my main character, who may be too passive and just drifting along with events in this section.

Next month I’ll be attending the Squaw Valley Community of Writers – a weeklong conference with dawn-to-dusk critique sections, writers’ panels, workshops, and readings. I’ve heard wonderful things about it and am looking forward not only to inspiration, but perhaps to some discussion of muddled middles.

In the meantime, I turned to my shelf of books about writing and then to what I could find about “middles of novels” on the Internet.

(Classic Web moment: You do a search for “middle of novel” and get a lot of responses that have to do with NOVELS for MIDDLE school students.)

The two best Web posts I found on mid-novel muddles are by a fantasy writer named Hilari Bell. I’d never heard of Bell, and her books aren’t the kind of thing I normally read. But one thing I’ve discovered is that good advice about writing transcends genre. You have to do a little mental translation while you read – a thriller writer may be talking about external threats from terrorists, while your literary novel may involve an internal threat from a failed relationship – but if it’s good advice, it works anywhere.

One of Bell’s posts that hit home for me is about inactive protagonists. Another is about “middle of the novel mud.” They’re somewhat related in that they focus on the need for the main character to act, not drift:

The middle of the novel is, notoriously, a place where writers get bogged down…. Generally, it’s either because they don’t have a big enough problem to drive a whole novel or because their main character is just wandering around while the story happens to them.

This overlapped enough with the comments from my writing group to spark a little “ah ha!” moment.

Now on to some middle-of-the-novel wrestling — or would that be “mid wrestling?”


Coming Attractions: I’m very excited about my next post — another rabbi interview, this time with Rabbi Andrew Straus, the new senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. I’ve already done the interview, and should be able to post it sometime this week. Stay tuned.

An adult bat mitzvah book?

July 14, 2011

When I started this blog, some folks asked if I were going to turn it into a book a la Julie and Julia. I gave a resounding NO. I just couldn’t see my Bat Mitzvah process as sufficiently dramatic or life-changing  to interest anyone (myself included) for 300 pages.

Fast-forward about 18 months. I studied for my Bat Mitzvah ceremony, became a Bat Mitzvah, celebrated, moved on with life.

But recently, I’ve started thinking about that book idea. And now I’m intrigued.

It’s not the kind of book that I initially rejected — not a first-person memoir of spiritual quest, not an Eat Daven Love.

Instead I’m thinking of a guidebook. A companion for women embarking on the process of becoming an adult Bat Mitzvah. (And men too, although they’re not as common.)

When Sam and I got married, we were deeply grateful for a book called The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant. Diamant — who also happens to be the author of the great Biblical novel The Red Tent — explained all the traditional wedding rituals and offered creative ways to reinterpret and personalize them. Ketubah? Seven blessings? Chuppah? Diamant explained it all, accessible and encouraging and feminist and informed. I would give that book in a nanosecond to any Jewish couple planning a wedding.

I can envision a similar kind of book for adult B’not Mitzvah. It would give the history of the Bar/t Mitzvah ceremony, and the components of Jewish worship and Torah reading; it would include stories from some of the thousands of women who have chosen to become B’not Mitzvah as adults. There would be questions to encourage personal reflection about this process, and suggestions for how to make it as meaningful as possible. It would be a supplement, not a substitute, for study with a rabbi and cantor at a synagogue.

DUH! My first reaction, thinking of this a month or two ago, was to slap my forehead like Homer Simpson. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?

But then second thoughts popped up, as they always do. (And as well they should.) The market for such a book is miniscule, much smaller than a Jewish wedding book. No commercial publishers would be interested. And women have been becoming adult B’not Mitzvah on a wide scale for more than 25 years now. Hasn’t someone written such a book already?

My friend Jane, who also became a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai in the past year, told me that she bought an adult Bat Mitzvah book when she started her process. My heart sank. Over the years I’ve found that nearly any time I have a Brilliant Book Idea, someone has written it already in a perfectly adequate manner.

Then last night I finally borrowed Jane’s book. And realized it was not at all what I was envisioning. It was a compendium of how to live a Jewish life, not a conversation about the Bat Mitzvah process.

Yay! I don’t think anyone has done what I’m imagining. There are lots of books for 13-year-old B’nei and B’not Mitzvah and their parents, but not for adults.

But that still leaves the question of how to fund it. I can’t put this amount of time in for free, or for an advance of a couple of thousand dollars. I think I’d need institutional support of some kind.

And it still leaves the bigger question: Is this a useful idea? Is it worth doing?

Hey you out there — yeah, you, blog readers who have tagged along with me for these months or years. Thoughts???

In praise of copy editors

May 30, 2011

There are basic services that are such a common part of our modern American lives that we don’t realize what a miracle they are — sewer systems, clean running water, electricity.

And copy editing.

I’ve been working on a freelance project this week helping a friend self-publish a memoir by his late father. It’s an enjoyable assignment, both because it’s an interesting story (refugee from Nazi Germany who ended up in the Philippines under Japanese occupation), and because it moves me down the road in my education about self-publishing.

But before I even get to the self-publishing part, there’s the editing part. I’m working my way through the manuscript, smoothing out narrative flow and awkward sentences and fixing grammatical errors and typos.

And realizing how much I take copy editors for granted.

At newspapers and books, there are generally two stages of editing. First comes the substantive editing — when the assigning editor reads through the piece and points out gaps, ramblings, lead paragraphs that don’t work, unsubstantiated claims, and other broad problems. Then comes copy editing, a completely different job that involves a detailed eye for things like grammar, spelling, and inconsistencies.

I’ve always been a clean writer who doesn’t make a lot of grammatical or spelling errors. You’ve probably noticed that from reading this blog. (Or maybe you haven’t. People don’t notice grammar and spelling when they’re correct, only when they’re wrong.)

There are lots of grammatical rules — like the proper use of “that” versus “which” — that I know without even stopping to think. (Rules that I know, not which I know!)

But even so, there are lots that I don’t know. And I’ve never had to learn them, because I’ve always had copy editors to back me up.

  • What’s the rule about the next-to-last item in a string of nouns, adjectives, or verbs — comma or no comma? Different media have different rules; don’t sweat it; the copy editor will do whatever is right.
  • Do I use numerals or words for writing about seventy-six trombones? 101 dalmatians? Ten thousand men of Harvard? Not to worry; the copy editor will fix it if I’m wrong.
  • Do FDR and JFK get periods after each of their letters? What about USA? CIA? LSD? (Uh oh, I’m about to burst into that song from Hair. And come to think of it, should Hair be italicized or placed in quotation marks?)

Well, suddenly there’s no copy editor watching my back. I need to figure this stuff out. So I went to the library and borrowed a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is 921 pages long but a lot less intuitive and user-friendly than I’d like it to be.

I can find the answers. But it’s nowhere near as efficient as working with a pro copy editor, who knows all of this off the top of her/his head.

Copy editing is a different skill set from writing. I can do it — but like electricity, sewage and water, it sure is nice when there are trained professionals to take care of it for me.