Friday, April 25, 2014

THE JUDGES MISJUDGED ME

               
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I had written a novel, a thriller, specifically to enter in a big novel-writing contest where the prizes ranged from $15,000 to $50,000. Well, I have been on a real roller-coaster ride ever since.

I had to submit three things for the contest – a 300-word pitch describing the book; an excerpt (the first 3,000-5,000 words of the book), and the book itself. The contest closed when the number of entries reached 10,000, so I knew I was in for a real challenge.

The first cut was going to be based on the pitch alone, where the judges would have to eliminate 8,000 entries based on whether or not the pitches intrigued them. Their decision was going to be announced on March 18.

The week before March 18, I tried not to think about the contest. I knew that only 2,000 entries were going to make it through on that day, and I kept telling myself I probably wasn’t going to be one of them. After all, I’d never written a thriller before and I knew my fiction-writing skills were lacking. I’d spent my life writing true stories (although, considering my crazy life, I’ve often been accused of writing fiction!), so fiction was something I hadn’t had much experience creating.

The night before the first cut of the contest, I started to get nervous. Would I make it to the next round? Would my pitch fail miserably? Would I end up using my manuscript to fuel a bonfire out in the yard?

At one minute past midnight on the 18th, I checked the contest website. The entries that had made it to the next round in each category were posted. The website said the authors’ names were listed alphabetically.

With trembling fingers, I scanned down to the “B” names. Mine wasn’t there. My heart sank.

“Oh, well,” I said, sighing, “I gave it my best shot.”

Then I happened to notice the names were listed alphabetically by the first names, not the last. Quickly, I scanned down to the “S” section. My name was there!  I jumped up and did a few happy-dance steps, even though my old bones sounded like creaky bedsprings.

Immediately, I posted my victory on Facebook for everyone to see. I wanted to share my success.

The next round was going to be based solely on the excerpts. In my case, it was the first 4,000 words of my book. I could have submitted up to 5,000 words, but I wanted to end my excerpt at an intriguing spot that would leave the judges hanging and hopefully, wanting more.  The results of that round were to be announced on April 14, and would reduce the remaining 2,000 entries to only 500. Those 500 would be the only ones who would have their entire books read by the judges.

The days between March 18 and April 14 crawled by. I was so eager to find out if my book was going to make it to the next round, I barely could concentrate on anything else. I forgot I was doing the laundry and left the wet clothes in the washer for two days. I called one of my friends and then called her again two hours later, forgetting I’d already spoken to her. I was a wreck.

Then I found out the contest judges had a forum online, where they vaguely discussed the excerpts they currently were reading. I became hooked on spying on their forum, hoping to get some clues.

“I read one excerpt today that was so bad, I couldn’t find anything good to say about it,” one judge said. “I think some of these contestants had professionals write their pitches for them, because their excerpts don’t match the quality of the pitches at all.”

I prayed he wasn’t talking about mine.

Another judge wrote, “The excerpt I read this morning was so good, I can’t wait to read the entire book. I definitely think it’s a big contender.”

I prayed he was talking about mine.

At one minute past midnight on the 14th, I checked the contest website. A notice said the results wouldn’t be posted until 3:00 that afternoon. Disappointed, I went to bed and tried to sleep, but I tossed and turned so much, the blankets ended up on the floor. I also kept thinking about what I’d do with all of the prize money if I did win. Everything from installing artificial grass in the yard, so I’d never have to mow it again, to paying off my credit card came to mind.

By the time I finally dozed off, it was about 10 in the morning. I slept until 4:00 that afternoon. The first thing I did when I woke up was rush to my computer to check the contest results. I barely could see because I still was half asleep, but the names were large enough for me to tell that mine wasn’t there. I was crushed.

Already, I was picturing what nice flames my book would produce when I used it for bonfire kindling.

Yesterday, I received feedback from two separate judges, who gave their reasons why they had decided not to move my book forward.

Both judges said my 4,000-word excerpt was written well, with good grammar, punctuation and descriptions. However, just from reading those few words, they said they could tell exactly where my plot was heading – that it was much too predictable. They then proceeded to tell me what they assumed was going to happen in the book.

As it turned out, every one of their assumptions was wrong. Not even one of the so-called “predictable” things they mentioned actually happens in my book.

So my book was cut for reasons that weren’t even valid. A part of me is pleased that my plot actually is nothing like they think it will be, because that means it’s not at all predictable.

Another part of me still wants to start that bonfire.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

MODERN BIKES JUST AREN'T MY SPEED


 
Quite a few of my friends have told me they plan to take up bicycle riding this year for exercise. One even suggested I buy a bike and join her.

All I can say is bicycles and I are mortal enemies. I’d rather take up bull riding because in my case, it probably would be safer.

When I was a kid, bicycles were simple – upright handlebars, two pedals, a foot braking-system, a thickly cushioned seat, and two wheels with big, balloon tires. You also could add a basket to carry stuff in, or a bell or a light on the handlebars. Simple.

I rode my bike everywhere when I was a kid and really enjoyed it, so when I got married and moved out to the country, I (because I hadn’t yet learned how to drive a car) decided to buy another bike. The nearest food store was three miles from my house, so I thought it would be a nice bike ride for me.

The bike I ended up buying was considered state-of-the-art for its time. It had five speeds, a streamlined seat, and handlebars that resembled rams’ horns. The best part was it weighed only about half of what my old bike weighed.

Unfortunately, my first ride on my new bike left me feeling so terrified, I seriously contemplated scheduling an exorcism for it.

Back then, we lived on a street that steeply sloped down to a busy highway. The day my bike was delivered, I was so eager to try it, I climbed right on and took off, zooming down the hill. As the highway grew closer, I pushed my feet backwards on the pedals to slow down the bike before stopping it. Nothing happened.

I could see the cars zipping by at 60 mph on the highway below as I too rapidly approached them. I continued to push back on the pedals, trying to stop the bike. The pedals just kept moving backwards, showing no signs of braking.

As visions of my face becoming a permanent decoration on the side of an 18-wheeler sprang to mind, I remembered the bike had handbrakes. Panicking, I squeezed them both at once, as hard as I could. The bike came to a screeching halt. I, however, ended up doing something that resembled half a handstand.

If I thought getting used to handbrakes was a challenge, trying to learn when and how to change the bike’s speeds was even worse. Even though there were only five speeds, I didn’t have the slightest clue when I was supposed to use each particular one. Every time I tried, the bike made a sound that reminded me of some chain-rattling Halloween ghost. I finally gave up and just left it on the lowest speed for everything.

The problem with using only one bike speed, I soon learned, was trying to climb steep hills. It was about as easy as strapping cannonballs to my legs and attempting to hike up Mount Washington.

And I rapidly developed a strong dislike for the ram’s-horns handlebars, not only because of their strange shape, but also because they forced me to ride in a really unflattering position – with my butt up in the air. Every time I had to stop at a traffic light, I would cringe, imagining the view the people in the cars behind me were being subjected to.

I also disliked the poor excuse for a seat on the bicycle. Gone was the nice, wide, comfortably padded seat of bygone days. In its place was something that resembled a small triangle of hard plastic. When I sat on the bike, the seat completely disappeared. I looked as if I were sitting on just the post – kind of like a big human lollipop.

The old bikes used to have protective fenders over the tires to prevent mud and water from kicking up onto the rider. My new bike had bare tires. The first time I rode it in my hunched-over position during a rainstorm, so much mud and dirt got kicked up onto my back, I had a big black stripe running down the middle of my white sweatshirt. I ended up looking like a weird skunk.

My husband, tired of listening to me complain about my new bike, decided he’d buy one and go riding with me to show me how a “real man” could handle the modern bicycles of that era. So he bought a 15-speed Huffy. Not that he knew what to do with 15 speeds. He just wanted to look really macho.

Most of our first ride together was spent with him fiddling with all of the speeds on his bike, trying to figure them out. He concentrated so much on them, he nearly crashed his bike into a tree.

And the road we picked had so many bumps, I began to feel as if I were riding on a bucking bronco. My body was off the seat more than on it. After about the tenth bump, I prayed I would hit such a big one, it would launch me into a time warp that would take me back to the 1950s and the comfy, padded seat on my old Schwinn.

When we returned home from our bike ride, I asked my husband if he had enjoyed himself.“Well,” he said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I never want to torture myself again by sitting on that rock-hard slice of plastic they call a seat.”

“And the good news?” I asked.

“I think that last big bump I hit cured my hemorrhoids.”

 

 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

SOME INSULTS AREN'T INTENTIONAL...ARE THEY?



I cashed out my items at the supermarket the other day and my total came to $19.04.

“Oh, 1904!” I said. “That’s the year I was born!”

The young clerk remained expressionless.

“Um…” I said, “that would make me 110.”

Still, nothing.

“You don’t look a day over 109,” the guy in line behind me joked.

As I was driving home, I found myself wondering if the clerk hadn’t said anything to me because she was bad at math and had no clue how old someone born in 1904 would be, or if she actually thought I’d been one of the original passengers on Noah’s Ark.

I also began to think how sometimes I’ve unintentionally blurted out things that might have insulted or offended people, and how many times I’ve had people do the same to me.  Immediately, those insults began to pop into my mind.

Take, for example, the time I went shopping for a dress to wear to my cousin’s wedding. After trying on at least a dozen, I finally found one I loved.

“It’s gorgeous!” the saleslady gushed. “And I have just the accessory to go with it!”

“What’s that?” I asked, smiling at my reflection in the mirror.

“A girdle or corset,” she answered. “It will smooth out all of your midriff bulge!” (This, of course, was long before the words “muffin top” or “body shapers” had become popular).

I put the dress back on the rack and left.

Then there was the time, back when I was in my 30s, when I was working as a mystery or “secret” shopper. My boss happened to mention that a store manager had contacted her because he’d heard rumors about one of his male clerks allegedly making suggestive remarks to female customers. The manager wanted proof, so he asked if my boss could send a couple mystery shoppers into the store to act as “bait” to see if the clerk would try to hit on them.

“I can do it for you,” I offered.

“Nah,” my boss said, looking down at some paperwork. “I’ll need someone who’s young and attractive for this assignment.”

I was pretty sure she hadn’t intended for her statement to come out sounding that way, but I interpreted it to mean, “The only man you could attract would be one who’s been locked up in solitary confinement and hasn’t seen a woman in 20 years!”

My husband was an expert at giving cleverly disguised insults in an attempt to spare my feelings. One night, for example, after I’d tried a new recipe and then was forced to watch him eat it with all the enthusiasm of someone who’d just been told his fork had fallen into the toilet, he commented, “This meat is…interesting. And the flavor is really unique. In fact, it’s a flavor I’m sure will stay with me for at least the next three or four days.”

I think I’d have preferred to just hear him say, “This tastes like canned dog food! No, I take that back. Even the dog probably would bury it!”

Another time, early in our marriage, back when mini dresses were all the rage, I bought one that was so short, if I didn’t stand perfectly straight in it, I probably would have been arrested. Still, I modeled it for my husband.

He remained silent as I twirled before him, showing him every angle of my new dress.

“That’s a really nice blouse,” he finally said. “What slacks are you going to wear with it?”

I got the message.

But now that I’m older, I tend to just brush off any comments that might be interpreted as insulting.

Well, except for a few weeks ago when I was talking to a group of people about growing up in Manchester and one of the guys said to me, “You’re what – about 70, aren’t you?”

I really wanted to kick him.


 

Friday, April 4, 2014

FOR SOME REASON, BUGS LOVE ME


Now that it’s spring, something I absolutely detest is about to reappear and make my life less peaceful. I’m talking about bugs.

I truly believe bugs have a sixth sense about which people dislike them the most, and those are the people they pick as their targets. If I’m standing outdoors in a crowd of 200 people, you can bet the wasp flying by will zero in on me and come to rest on the tip of my nose.  Or if I pick out a spot on the ground and sit down, every ant within a 10-mile radius will come running so fast, you’d think I’d been dipped in chocolate.

I’m convinced that bugs carry little GPS tracking devices into which they program, “find Sally,” so they’ll know exactly where I am at all times.

The other night, it became clear to me that my bug-free days are numbered. I pulled open my underwear drawer and when I reached into it, a big black spider jumped up at me.  I screamed and ran. When I finally caught my breath, all I could think about was that if I didn’t get brave and get rid of that spider, I could end up sharing a pair of my panties with it.

So I rushed out to the kitchen and grabbed, of all things, a hammer, and returned to the bedroom. I then proceeded to hammer everything in my underwear drawer. My goal was to eventually find a squished spider somewhere in the pile of my unmentionables.

The thought also occurred to me that while I’d been out in the kitchen, the spider could have crawled out of the underwear drawer and at that moment was making a beeline for an even better hiding place. So I hoped I wasn’t pulverizing my bras for nothing. 

Finally, I stopped hammering and gathered the courage to check through the drawer in search of what I hoped would be spider guts.  I put on rubber gloves and lifted up one piece of underwear at a time. There, in the back corner of the drawer, I spotted the spider’s corpse. It was perfectly intact, however, which led me to suspect it probably had died of cardiac arrest…from trying to avoid the hammer.

I’m not exaggerating when I say bugs purposely seek me out. A perfect example happened back in December when I attended a Christmas concert at a church in Epsom.

I had a front-row seat and was thoroughly enjoying the singers’ angelic voices as they flawlessly harmonized in a series of hymns and Christmas carols. During one particularly uplifting solo, where the audience was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop, I suddenly felt something crawling up the side of my neck.

My first impulse was to scream, leap to my feet and frantically swat at my neck. But not wanting to make a spectacle of myself, especially during such a heartfelt performance, I remained perfectly still.

“It’s winter!” I told myself, trying to keep calm. “There’s fresh snow on the ground outside!  What on earth would have survived that storm – the Abominable Snow Ant?  You’re just imagining things!”

But when I felt whatever it was on my neck making its way up to the side of my face, I couldn’t deny the inevitable.  I wasn’t imagining anything. It was real. The only problem was, I had no clue what “it” was. My mind reeled, imagining everything from a tarantula to roaches and bedbugs.  I began to squirm in my seat.

The thought also occurred to me that my unwanted visitor’s next stop probably would be my hair, where it easily could hide out for a while, as if it were in a jungle.  So I gritted my teeth and prayed for the woman onstage to end her solo soon, so I could swat at myself without being a distraction.

The woman launched into another chorus.

The thing crawling up the side of my face arrived at my temple.

That did it. I couldn’t bear the torture a moment longer. I reached up and brushed at the side of my head. My visitor went flying through the air and landed on the floor right in front of me. It was a big black cricket.

I know that some people think crickets are fascinating creatures that have melodious chirps and bring good luck.  I’m not one of them. I think crickets are, well…really creepy.  I figured this cricket picked me out from all of the people at the concert because it had ESP and knew I thought it was ugly, so it was out to avenge its species.

Once the weather warms up, I guess I’ll have no choice other than to learn to put up with all sorts of annoying little things that fly, crawl, sting, bite, slither and jump.

So I hope no one will form a lynch mob and come looking for me when I say I’m hoping the cold winter weather will hang around until at least July.