Thursday, February 27, 2014

Looking for "Beta readers"


As I was completing HOW I GREW UP, the idea grew to revisit and explore the relationship between Krissy and Eli, two of the characters in the book whose youthful romance was ended abruptly by a mistake Krissy made and the interference of Eli’s family.

When they are in college, Eli learns of his family’s actions three years earlier, and he manages to contact Krissy. They are both college sophomores but are some six hundred miles apart. Eli was born with a congenital heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, and a prodigious musical talent. Many challenges for any young person to deal with.

My challenge was to find a cardiologist who would be willing to research the heart defect and how it was treated all those decades ago, and make sure what I wrote about Eli’s condition and treatment were accurate. Networking is pretty amazing; I was fortunate enough to find such a person who seemed intrigued with what I was doing. Theater is a wonderful thing! My connection was made through a former ESHS South student who had been active in our musical theater program. He is currently working in medical research in Boston, and he “introduced” me to a colleague who was willing to be my consultant.

I did as much research as I could online. Advances in medicine over the past half century have been impressive and amazing, but it was difficult to ascertain how Eli’s condition might have been treated all those years ago. I did as much reading as I could, including reading parts of Vivien Thomas’ book “Partners in the Heart.” Thomas was a remarkable man who assisted Drs. Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig with their pioneering work in treating patients of T.O.F. in the mid-nineteen forties. Tetralogy of Fallot is a complex disorder (it took me a long time to understand it, and eventually to try and explain it to Krissy and ultimately the reader). For a long time, patients inevitably suffered great discomfort and early death. The Black-Taussig procedure gave them added years and definitely a more normal life.

The HBO film “Something the Lord Made” was definitely an influence in prompting me to write this story. I highly recommend it; excellent performances and extremely well written.

I’ve had a great deal of help from three kind people who have read as I’ve been writing and re-writing and re-re-re-writing. One of these Alpha readers has been kind enough to proofread the book carefully and catch many errors, and has made some very valuable suggestions. She is almost finished with this, and now I need “Beta readers” … people who are willing to read the book before I consider attempting to publish it. I need to know if the book flows, if the characters are believable, if the book holds the reader’s interest. Since both of my characters are passionate musicians, there are some rather detailed passages about certain pieces of music. Are these helpful to the reader? Too much? Too little?

If anyone reading this blog is willing to be a Beta reader for ELI’S HEART, please let me know! You can comment on this blog or PM me on Facebook, or email me at You should be aware this book is considerably longer than HOW I GREW UP. I'd like to have critiques within a month if at all possible, so I am asking for a time commitment.

I'll be very grateful if I can find two or three people who are willing to do this! 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Music for Winter


Probably Antonio Vivaldi’s best-known work, “Winter” – “L’inverno” – is a section of a work, “The Four Seasons,” composed in 1723 in which each season is vividly brought to life in music. Each season is presented as a separate violin concerto. Vivaldi originally scored the work for string quartet and basso continuo; contemporary performances often use a chamber orchestra to accompany the soloist. My favorite part of this concerto is the first movement, Allegro non molto. It’s short but sounds to me exactly the way winter should sound.; Winter rushing in and shocking us with its audacity. I like the way Signor Vivaldi ends his concerto with a bit of a recapitulation of the first movement.

This music has been my “earworm” this entire week. I think in our little corner of the universe we have experienced almost everything winter can throw at us, beginning with last week’s Nor’easter. Gentle snowfall yesterday. Ice today, followed by above freezing temperatures (a rarity this winter) and some slight melting, especially of the long icicles hanging off our gutters.

When I look out my front window I see those icicles, varying lengths in their elongated descending pyramids, not quite clear ice because of the way they have formed, a drip of water at a time. Beyond that is my front yard, now mostly monochromatic, probably thirty inches or more of snow. A drift of snow separates the two oak trees in the front of my house that have grown together over many decades. Beyond, in my neighbors’ yards, I see trees that are bare of leaves; some larger, vertical tree limbs seem to have been delicately iced with white. I see neighbors’ roofs with snow piled high and icicles also hanging from the gutters.

Driving is challenging; the snow is piled so high by the plows it is difficult sometimes to see around a corner, so drivers carefully inch out a little further than we usually would in order to see better. Driving requires keeping one eye on oncoming traffic and the other on the roadway, trying to spot potholes, difficult to see especially at dusk and after dark. Unfortunately, nearly all of us discover some of these potholes in the worst possible way, by slamming into them. I drive more slowly to try and avoid damage to my car.

Walking is challenging. Snow has melted and refrozen so most walkways have icy surfaces. We all try and keep the ice clear, but materials to help melt the ice have become almost impossible to find. I used the last of my supply this afternoon on my front sidewalk.

Winter will pass, of course, and spring will be very welcome this year. But Vivaldi’s music makes all the trials of a severe winter a little more palatable. The artists in this Youtube video are not credited but the photographs of the season are lovely. You will need to copy and paste to your browser, but you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Word for Today: NOR'EASTER?


The word for the day is “nor’easter.” According to Wikipedia:

A nor’easter is a macro-scale storm along the upper East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada; it gets its name from the direction the wind is coming. A nor’easter is a low pressure area that often passes just off the New England and southeast Canada Atlantic coastline. Nor’easters can cause severe coastal flooding, coastal erosion, hurricane force winds or blizzard conditions; these conditions are usually accompanied with very heavy rain or snow, depending on when the storm occurs. Nor'easters thrive on the converging air masses; that is, the polar cold air mass and the warmer oceanic air over the Gulf Stream.

While weather prognosticators have been reluctant to label the storm we’re in the midst of right now, on February 13, 2014, it seems to me to bear some resemblance to a nor’easter. For many days, maybe more than a week, the weather forecasters have tried to guess what this storm was going to do. In a recent e-mail to a friend in California I likened a nor’easter to a pouty teenager who doesn’t know what she wants. In reality, the only way to know which “path” the storm is going to take is to look at the storm as it moves away and say, well, yes, this computer model was right; that one was wrong. And yes indeed, it was a nor’easter. Or maybe it wasn’t.

It seems that locally, we may be spared the worst a nor’easter has to offer this time around. I can remember storms of this kind that hit us with exactly that: a long stretch of heavy snow; a sudden warm-up in the atmosphere accompanied by high winds and heavy rain, with consequential melting of snow combined with the rain causing flooding of streets and basements; then a drop in temperature freezing the water on the roads, followed by more snow. If you’ve never experienced a nor’easter, trust me, they can leave you reeling. Boston might get hammered.

Since we’ve had quite a bit of snow already this winter it’s a little hard to tell how much we’re currently getting with this storm. Right at the moment we have a steady snow, but it looks like light, fluffy snow; not the large, full flakes that indicate heavier snow with more moisture content. That could change later today. It’s pretty, and there doesn’t seem to be much wind, but most people in our area haven’t ventured out today. Local school closings for today were announced yesterday evening.

That last sentence in the Wikipedia article tells the story: “Nor’easters thrive on the converging air masses, that is, the polar cold air mass and the warmer oceanic air over the Gulf Stream.” The southeastern states were hit yesterday and last night with a “winter storm.” And now the weather service has begun naming winter storms: this one is called Pax. The Weather Channel continues to refer to this as “winter storm Pax.”  I think it’s laughing at all of us as it shuts down major highways and airports, closes down the Federal Government and schools all over the eastern part of the United States, strands motorists and possibly leaves fatalities in its wake.

The only good thing about Pax is that it won’t last more than twenty-four hours or so. But another one will come along ... if not this winter, then next.

Friday, February 7, 2014

More Memories of a Musical Theater Director


Two things the director of a community theater production learns to expect: dealing with crowd control and putting out fires.

The crowd control comes with wanting to include as many people as is logistically possible in almost every production, especially if you are performing a show that includes actors from eight to eighty. Pocono Lively Arts started life as a presenting organization and tried our first musical after a couple of years of concerts. The musical immediately became an annual holiday event. The holiday shows we performed were family friendly: SCROOGE, ALICE, BABES IN TOYLAND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, HEIDI, to name a few. After ten years we added a summer show with more adult content: shows such as 1776, CAMELOT, OF THEE I SING, OKLAHOMA!, THE SECRET GARDEN, THE FANTASTICKS.

Putting out fires: anything from having to replace an actor to finding a new costume mistress to tracking down a hard-to-find prop to dealing with a flu bug striking down Munchkinland. One major fire: for one summer production that was a huge period show (hint: the guys were in tights and tunics), we had a costume mistress who had measured the cast and sent the list to the costume company we were using for rentals. Two weeks before the costumes were to arrive I called this person to touch base about accepting the costumes and having fittings. She was out of town. WAY out of town, and no one seemed to know when she’d be back. Yikes. Fortunately, I appealed to a woman who had helped with high school productions, and she was kind enough to take on the formidable task of getting our actors dressed for the show. That terrific lady was our costumer from that point on until she moved to Ohio, where she and her husband continue to work in theater.

And then there was the “fire” with my sound tech for several years. A terrific young man, who shall remain anonymous in this blog, but the son of a very close friend. At the time he was in high school and had developed a passion for playing paint ball. The show was THE SONG OF NORWAY, and at that time we were performing four shows over one weekend: Friday evening, Saturday matinee and evening, Sunday matinee. The Friday performance went wonderfully (though some of my friends in the cast really didn’t care for the show and referred to it as THE SONG OF SNOREWAY ... beautiful music by Edvard Grieg, lame script). Nice show for our kids, though ... they wore traditional Norwegian holiday dress and sang Norwegian carols in the lobby at intermission. And some of them had speaking roles! One plus: we all learned something about Norway. I like shows like that.

I digress. Saturday matinee rolls around, and no sound tech. I called his house and asked his mother if he was on his way (I like having my techs in the theater an hour before curtain). He’d gone to a neighboring town ... a good hour’s drive ... to play paint ball. Fifteen minutes before curtain, still no sign. Now I am more worried than annoyed; the road is winding and could be treacherous. Five minutes before curtain, the director is getting frantic instructions as to how to operate the soundboard .... something she’s never, ever done before, and the first number in the show is a huge trio. Somehow I managed to avoid feedback and maintain some semblance of balance (these people were singers; the tenor is a member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus today). MIA sound tech finally appears, white as a sheet, and takes over from an eternally grateful director, who is very happy to see he is in one piece and apparently unscathed.

It seems he had been taken by bus to the paint ball battle site and was unable to get back to his car in order to leave until the entire event was completed and everybody was returned by bus to the parking lot. It was too far for him to try to walk. This was in the days before cell phones, dear friends, so he had no way of contacting us. I was so relieved to see him I couldn’t say too much. I was very glad my fifteen minutes of soundboard duty ended well. What the conversation was when he got home I have no idea. By the way, this young man is a success story today: works for a major acoustical engineering firm out West and has his own photography studio.

That "anonymous" young sound tech grew up to be Andrew Kowalyshyn, and he's given me permission to use his name and this wonderful photo from his studio, AK Photography, in Denver, Colorado. 

 Here's the link: check him out!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Step Two: The Publishing Maze


So my book HOW I GREW UP (yes, once again, I am shamelessly promoting it) was released on October 24, 2013 (I think). It’s been nice to hear from some people that they’ve bought it, read it, or bought it and read it, and were glad they did. (I’ve learned e-books can be shared, and I’ve always been a great believer in lending and borrowing print books!). The mother of a former student stopped me in the supermarket yesterday morning and told me she read it and loved it, and has lent it to her sister. A few days ago I had a lovely Facebook message from a young man who is a professional musical theater performer and graduate of the high school where I work who said many nice things about it.

When I wrote HOW I GREW UP, I wrote it because I felt it was a story that had needed to be told for decades. I wrote it for my friend Anita. I wrote it for me. One of the first people who read it was a woman who had been a close friend of Anita’s, and it held a very special meaning for her. She had been in college when the tragedy took place, and reliving what I imagined Anita had gone through was cathartic for her. I’m sure every reader reacts somewhat differently.

I wrote it quickly, in about four months, often spending long hours at the computer. Now that it’s in print, I’d like for more people to read it. It has a strong message. I re-read it recently, and was pleased to find it is a good read. Even though I’d put it aside for a short time after I finished it, and then went back and polished it, at that time I was still too close to be objective. I learned a lot about the craft of writing by writing it, and about my weaknesses that needed addressing. And about my strengths that I could build on.

You have this book, this manuscript that’s a little like giving birth. What next? With HOW I GREW UP I decided I wanted to see it in print while I was still around, so I went to a Print on Demand company and paid them to get it into print and available to buyers for me. It’s not exactly “self publishing” ... Virtual Bookworm had three editors review my manuscript before they agreed to publish it, and their fee was very reasonable.

They did not market the book, which is the rest of the story. The guy who wrote the enormously successful book CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL submitted his manuscript 144 times before he found a publishing company that accepted the book. And then it was on the New York Times Best Seller List forever. Well, for a very long time, anyway. Apparently, if you have a marketing plan for your book, at least some publishers will look more favorably on what you have to offer. And apparently non-fiction books are a better bet for a publishing house than fiction (except for science fiction, which is very popular).

ELI’S HEART is almost ready for submission or publication, one way or the other. I’d like to try to see if I can find a publishing house that will look at it, but I’m not sure I’m up for 144 rejection letters. I have this book, “Writer’s Market 2014” that has page after page of publishing houses, many of which will not even look at a manuscript unless it’s submitted by an agent. Many of which publish ONLY non-fiction. Being a published author is very satisfying. Being a RECOGNIZED published author is something else entirely.

I’m beginning to understand that being an author isn’t dissimilar to being a performer. You have to be willing to promote yourself, and you have to believe what you have to offer is something people will find worth reading. And, as in the performance world where there are thousands of gifted performers but relatively few who “make it,” there are many thousands of authors who would like to be published. It’s all new to me, and a little scary. I like my second novel. ELI’S HEART has a good message and a strong story. I want to see it in print.

Wish me luck. Advice and suggestions welcome!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Remembering THE WIZARD OF OZ ... times 3

OZ X 3

Directing a show can be a little like venturing through a minefield. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a tricky show to put together. Based on an iconic film with a lot of unusual requirements for at least some stage wizardry (pun intended) required, it’s definitely challenging for a community theater production, otherwise known as “musical theater on a shoestring.” I’ve been brave enough ... or foolhardy enough ... to direct it three times since 1991.

Aside from the obvious (three actors who can play a Lion, a Scarecrow and a Tin Man and are willing to don some pretty scary costumes, a Dorothy who we know will be compared to Judy Garland, and a Wicked Witch who can deal with green makeup), there are those Munchkins. Here’s one of the problems: we wanted them all to be shorter than Dorothy. So during auditions, kids were backed up against a wall where the top line was 5’, and if they topped that, they weren’t a Munchkin. They might be an Emerald Citizen or a Winkie Guard, if they looked old enough and could sing well enough. Otherwise, we couldn’t include them in the cast. It’s hard to break a couple of dozen children’s hearts. I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Sounds simple enough ... but we cast the show in September and it went up in November or December. Children grow very quickly. Inevitably we could have had a Munchkin basketball team. How did you grow three inches in two and a half months? What do you do with Munchkins who are onstage twice in a two hour show? Find some wonderful moms who help them play games and do busy work in between their two scenes.

During our first WIZARD OF OZ there was an outbreak of a nasty stomach virus that swept through Munchkinland during show weekend. Fortunately, by then every Munchkin in the cast knew the dialogue, music and movement for every Munchkin leading role, so when first the Mayor and then the Coroner and probably others I don’t recall were knocked out of commission, we just grabbed a Munchkin who fit the costume and the show went on.

Other challenges: going from black-and-white or sepia (which is what the original film was) to technicolor. Mainly costuming and lighting. Flying monkeys: we only used one, and that was the third time we did the show. He was a hoot. The Witch’s crystal ball: mainly good acting by the Witch. The Wizard’s Throne Room. (Lots of specials from the lighting and sound designers.) I think you get the picture. Glinda's bubble. Needless to say, the show is a nightmare for the stage manager.

The house that moves from Kansas to Oz: house constructed on a frame with casters; stage crew members inside who moved the house from one side of the stage to the other while the lighting and sound techs created a pretty awesome storm. Fans blowing the curtains around (not sure how effective that was). Blackout, really good backdrop of Munchkinland pulled across the stage. Quickly hide Munchkins everywhere. Quick change for Dorothy into “technicolor” blue and white checked pinafore dress. Worked pretty well! 

Toto. Probably the biggest land mine in the entire show. Our first Toto was not a stage performer, but his owners were great and they were as much part of the cast as anyone else. They were there through thick and thin. Rather than trying to have a non-stage trained dog on for the entire show, the Wicked Witch snatched him up when she first accosted Dorothy, and Toto didn’t reappear until Dorothy was in the Witch’s castle, where he was in a cage. The owners begged me to let Toto try crossing the stage by himself when he’s rescued, so at the final dress I agreed. Toto bolted into the hall. The rehearsal came to a screeching halt while we rescued him for real. Since we were in a high school the halls were filled with non-show people.

Second Oz: we used a dog trained for stage work. He was great, but the trainer wasn’t people friendly, so there was a lot of tension backstage. Third Oz: one of the Munchkins had a mom who was a veterinarian. Best Toto yet! That was the year we had fifty Munchkins on stage and a total cast of one hundred. I’m surprised the actors who played the Lion and the Tin Man that year are still my friends ... those costumes weren’t easy!

My favorite scene was the one that was cut from the film: “The Jitterbugs.” Most fun scene in the entire show, and I just relaxed and watched the dancers provide some wonderful true stage magic in Oz thanks to a terrific choreographer. Would I direct it again? I absolutely would. Would it scare the daylights out of me? Without a doubt. But it’s worth it!