Sunday, September 30, 2012

Building Blocks of Writing and Speaking

In fifth grade, Sister Mary McCauley introduced the eights parts of speech to us as “building blocks.” She cut out a different colored block of construction paper for each speech part. Throughout the school year, we learned what each block represented and its use in sentences.
            To activate our brains we’d started, as I posted last Sunday, with memorizing forty-five prepositions and using them to make up story-sentences. Thus we had already used nouns and verbs together. Soon our more formal training in their use began.
             We started with nouns and ended with interjections. In between we met brightly colored blocks for pronouns, verbs, adjectives and articles, adverbs, and conjunctions. Of course, we’d already memorized that list of prepositions.
            Sister used these blocks to build sentences on the bulletin board. By the end of the school year, we twenty-six fifth graders had learned the power of the eight parts of speech and their syntax. We had also mastered sentence parts: subjects, verbs, objects, and complements.
            With our blocks we stacked words in different ways and found what we could build with them. Here are the activities I remember as we began to construct with our building blocks:  
·      Sister gave each of us a colorful magazine picture. We listed in our Big Chief Tablet all the persons, places, and things we saw. We used these pictures throughout the year as we learned each new part of speech.

·      Next, we took our tablets home and wrote in them all the nouns we saw. The next day, we shared our lists and got ribbons for outstanding nouns. The noun block went on the bulletin board. All alone.
·      We learned additional nouns, going from general to specific: Vehicle, car, sedan, Chevrolet. Animal, cat, tiger, Tony the Tiger. Toy, game, Monopoly. House, room, kitchen, pantry. Furniture, footstool, hassock, ottoman.

·      Each of us pantomimed doing something while the rest of our classmates called out each action they saw us perform.
·      We took our Big Chief tablets home and wrote in them all the verbs/actions we saw. The next day we got ribbons for our most descriptive actions; zoom, whittle, stumble, twist. Sister pinned the verb block to the right of the noun on the bulletin board. Thus, we saw first visual of the most common syntax of the English language.

·      Once again we learned more specific synonyms: Walk, amble, meander, stroll, plod, hike. Run, dash, sprint. Smile, laugh, guffaw, chortle, giggle, tee-hee, smirk. Read, peruse, scan, skim.  
·      Next we built simple sentences with our lists of nouns and verbs: Cats jump. Mothers read. Dads whittle. Dogs protect. Cars zoom. Children play.
·      Each of us pantomimed a noun and its action before the class: book falls, foot kicks, hand raises, lips whistle, face smiles, eraser erases, chalk writes.
·      We returned to our tablet pages of nouns and added a one-word description of each: Furry kittens jump. Busy mothers read. Tired dads whittle. Yellow dogs protect. Racing cars zoom. Happy children play. The adjective block went on the bulletin board to the left of the noun.

·      We did the same for our list of actions: Furry kittens jump high. Busy mothers read aloud. Tired dads whittle easily. Yellow dogs scratch frantically. Racing cars zoom nosily.

·      Sister added the adverb block to the right of the verb. We now had four different colored blocks in a line: Adjectival modifier, noun subject, verb predicate, and adverbial modifier.
·      The list of assignments and activities went on throughout the year: block by block, step by step, a progression of learning.
·      Ultimately, we got to sentences with a modified subject, a modified verb or action word, a noun used as a direct object, and a number of prepositional phrases used to describe the nouns or the verb.
·      To do all this, Sister would usually start by pantomiming a scene that became a sentence. We might end up with the following: In her frayed black habit, the tired teacher accidentally dropped the dog-eared geography book on the wooden desk by the window.

Now we were ready for sixth grade when we would begin to study the various types of sentences and learn more about punctuation. In seventh grade we’d diagram these sentences and locate misplaced modifiers. It was there that syntax began to make sense.
Is this how you learned the parts of speech and how to build sentences? When did you first begin to realize the power of words? And how has that early training affected your writing? Have you had to forget a few things?!?!?   
All photographs from Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beginning with Prepositions

This past Wednesday, I announced on my other blog that I’d discuss diagramming and Latin here today. But upon reflection, I’ve realized that those two topics need underpinnings before exploration.
            So today, instead, I’ll share with you the far-distant beginnings of my delight in language. It was in the fifth-grade classroom at Saint Mary’s Grade School in Independence, Missouri, in 1946, that words and I became friends.

            Our fifth-grade English textbook presented us with five rows of prepositions listed in alphabetical order. Here are those forty-five words as I remember them:

about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, outside, over, past, since, through, to, towards, under, until, up, upon, with, within, without

            Sister Mary McCauley, our teacher, challenged us to memorize all forty-five and to list them in less than a minute. One by one we’d stand beside our desks and spout them off. She’d reward us with stickers if we beat our previous time. Each of us repeatedly broke our records. Finally we were able to list those forty-five words in only a few seconds.            
            Once we’d memorized the prepositions, she’d give us a noun—perhaps “table”—and ask us how many prepositions we could use with it. For instance: above the table, acrossthe table, against the table, behind the table, below the table, beneaththe table, beside the table, inside the table, like the table, near the table, on the table, under the table, upon the table, without a table.
           On another day, she’d give us two nouns—perhaps “cat” and “bed”—and the verb “is” and ask us to form simple sentences using a preposition. A student might imagine the following: The cat is behind the bed, below the bed, beneath the bed, beside the bed, near the bed, on the bed, under the bed, upon the bed, without a bed.

            Ultimately, Sister Mary McCauley gave us three words: perhaps “cat,” “jumped,” “bed.” Once again, we’d stand, one by one, by our desk and, as rapidly as we could, spiel off our list. Someone might start with “The cat jumped behind the bed” and then proceed through the memorized list of prepositions until finally proclaiming,  “The cat jumped towardthe bed” and “The cat jumped without a bed.”
            Thus, we learned to construct and claim sentences. Moreover we learned to recognize prepositional phrases, which at their most basic are formed with a preposition and a noun.
            The next thing we needed to learn was the adjectival and the adverbial use of these phrases. That is, whether the prepositional phrase told the listener or reader something about a noun or about a verb. That would come in sixth grade when Sister Mary McCauley began to teach us diagramming. Next Sunday, I’ll explain how she taught that.
            Learning how to diagram a sentence helped me dissect it into its elements. And this activity helped me think logically and write more clearly.
            One thing more: In high school, I discovered that English boasts more than 45 prepositions. Actually, Amazon now offers several books on prepositions with one at least listing 150 of them.
            Isn’t this just the way? You think you’ve learned something and then you discover you’ve just viewed the tip of the iceberg. So much lies beneath the water’s surface!

PS: Cast your eyes at that photograph from the television show “Friends.” Wow! The number of prepositional phrases you can make to describe that scene!

The “Friends” photo is from Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Metamorphosis in Publishing

In September 1992, Crown published the hardcover of A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story. In December 2001, J. N. Townsend Publishing released the paperback edition.

            I first queried a Crown editor in April 1991. In her reply, she asked me to cut in half the 44,000-word manuscript, remove all cats but Dulcy, and concentrate only on our relationship.
             Two cats—Bartleby and Tybalt—seemed essential, so I didn’t remove them. However, I did delete 22,000 words that didn’t carry the relationship story forward. I pasted the deletions into a file, hoping that one day a second book would be published. That day came in May 2012.
            I had always thought that being published a first time would serve as an entrĂ©e to a second book. That didn’t prove true. By 2012, the editor was long gone from Crown, and I was unable to interest an agent in the companion book, which I’d titled Twelve Habits of Highly Successful Cats & Their Humans.
            Fortunately, Wayman Press offered to publish it. This small press has much to offer an author. Its main strength is an energetic publisher who knows how to use the advantages of social media and how to use the publishing arm of Amazon. What this means is that both cover and text can be easily changed in today’s world.
            This past April I worked with the Wayman designer. The month was busy: I spent two weeks considering whether to move back to Minnesota; company visited for a week; and I put my home on the market.
            During that distracting time, the Wayman designer created a cover that seemed quite beautiful to me. On it, Dulcy looked regal. So did the cover. I knew, however, that the title—Twelve Habits of Highly Successful Cats & Their Humans—was a mouthful for a potential buyer to remember, but I was too busy to think of a better one.

            Despite Wayman’s tireless promotion, the book sold poorly between May and mid-September. Then a telephone conversation prompted a change for the book.
            As we chatted last Sunday, Judy King, the artist for the first book, said, “Your title’s not catchy.”  
            “Any ideas for a different one?” I asked.
            “No, but you’ll think of something.”
            I knew I wouldn’t because as an editor at Winston Press in Minneapolis I’d displayed little creativity at titling meetings. Clearly, I needed help. It came from three friends, fellow bloggers, who had read both of Dulcy’s books and had a fondness for her.
            DJan’s two blogs—DJan-ity and Eye on the Edge—are so aptly named that I trusted her instinct on titles. She e-mailed me:

I like the word Habitsbecause it reminds me of your days as a nun.  If you really want to change it, maybe you could dream it up, literally. Ask for it to come to you in a dream, go to bed with that in mind and see what pops out of that amazing brain of yours!

            Inger, like Judy, thought a change would be for the better. She enhances her blog—Desert Canyon Living—with her evocative photographs. Moreover, she treasures Dulcy. Inger e-mailed me the following in response to my request for help:

1.     I woke up with the thought that since the other title works so well, you could follow that formatA Cat's Life: Dulcy's Storywith something to fit the second book. I don't know what, but I thought I would give you this idea to mull over. . . . For the bottom part, I think Dulcy's Legacy would work well, not only because that's what it is. I don't have any good ideas for the top part. I thought A Cat's Advice or A Cat's Habits, but I'm not crazy about either. I do like Dulcy's Legacy though. Of course I'm not attached to it if you or someone else comes up with something you like better.

2.     I never liked the cover. I love her picture of course, but I think that the rest of the cover is not inviting. The black and white is so stark. It's elegant, but for the average buyer it may not be warm and fuzzy, the way people in general like their animal stories. The cover for A Cat's Lifeon the other hand just screams, “Buy Me!”

Ah, now I’m thinking of both title and cover change. So I contact another blogger friend—Fishducky. Her blog—Fishducky, Finally!—always brings laughter into my life. Moreover, she’s a fine artist. She e-mailed back the following:

I hadn't thought about the title or cover picture before because I was so pleased to read another of your books! Now that I think of it, I agree with Inger & DJan.A warmer & more inviting cover would be a good idea.I like Dulcy's Legacy incorporated in the title. You don't want people to think it's another self-help book.

Once again I was fortunate that Wayman Publishing was the press that published Dulcy’s companion book back in May. The editor there liked the title A Cat’s Legacy: Dulcy’s Story. It showed the book’s relationship to A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story and labeled the twelve habits as her “legacy.” Inger’s suggestion seemed like a true inspiration to me.
The Wayman designer worked on a cover that DJan, Inger, Fran, and I all liked. By this past Wednesday the book was ready for its re-issue on the Wayman site and on Amazon. Here’s the final result of all this collaboration. I hope you like it.

And, of course, I hope that visitors to Amazon who are looking for a new cat book in which the cat speaks for herself will find A Cat’s Legacy: Dulcy’s Story, purchase the paper copy or download the e-book, and enjoy meeting the sweetness and wit of Dulcythe cat with whom I lived for seventeen-and-a-half years.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Intro to the Life of a Wordcrafter

Welcome to my new blog. For the past year, I’ve written an on-line memoir entitled coming home to myself. On it, I post a story from my life each Wednesday and will continue to do so.
            However, in the past twenty-six years, I’ve dreamed often and ever of becoming a published writer. Part of my dream has come true because of a wonderful editor who recognized the sweetness of a cat with whom I lived for seventeen-and-a-half years.
            Yet since the publication by Crown of A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story, I’ve had no luck with finding an agent who’d be interested in representing the stories and novels I’ve written since that cat memoir was published in 1992. Nor have I been able to find another traditional publisher willing to take a risk on my writing. Yet I continue to write . . . and to dream.
            In this blog, I’ll share my dream with you as well as the “blood, sweat, and tears”—to quote Winston Churchill—that are part of the writing life.

            Perhaps you’d enjoy learning more about the ins and outs of getting published. If so, please return to this blog every Sunday for a new posting.            
            Here, I’ll share with you how I learned the craft of writing, how I’ve researched agents and editors, how blogging has enhanced my writing, and how a small press has now published and energetically promoted a second book about Dulcy—the cat who started all this.
            Of course I’ll also discuss the difference social media makes with regard to promotion as well as many other topics, such as self-publishing, that are part of the writing life today. If I receive comments that express writing/publication concerns, I’ll use these as the foundations for future postings.
            I hope you’ll share the crafting of this blog with me. Let me know with your comments what you’d like me to write about. If I have a personal experience that might serve as an example of what you’re interested in, I’ll post about it.
            I hope to see you back here this coming Sunday. My posting then will detail how four friends I’ve met through blogging helped me retitle a book in the hope that it would sell better and find a more fitting cover for it. That’s all happened in the past three whirlwind days, and I’m so pleased with the result. As my friend Elisa says, “I’m living the dream!”

Photo of books from