Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blog of Note: Emerging Writers

Earlier today I received the latest item from the Emerging Writers Network. It's a fairly long but interesting (at least I thought so) set of interviews with small press publishers. I'll admit that I've been looking for an agent lately rather than a publisher, so I am fairly uninformed about all of these people. But like I said, it's interesting. Why?

Because the interviews offer insight into how small publishers think about their projects — and from what I can tell, these are projects for the most part; I don't think these publishers expect to make oodles of money out of this work. They simply believe in literature in its many forms.

The interviews also provided names of other new and relatively unknown writers who deserve to be read and judged on their merits. Give EWN a look and consider learning more about the writers.

The Truth About Fiction

I ran across a nice little Q&A in the Washington Post. It's an interview with Professor Bonnie Libby, who teaches literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

I don't know Professor Libby, and I don't know if she and I would agree on everything, but that's quite all right. I found this quote interesting:

"[W]e talk about the constant allure of sin, and that too often vice (especially our own) does not disgust us. Good literature should illuminate this human tendency and make us care to correct it. Certainly, literature often depicts the baser aspects of human nature; otherwise it wouldn't be true. But many times, we Christians get hung up on the obvious vices like profanity or sexual immorality, while dismissing more prevalent and pernicious moral evils like pride, superiority and envy."

As someone who has written a novel that includes a healthy dose of sin and vice as well as profanity and sexual immorality, I say: Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Let Me Sleep on It

Now here's an idea other writers may find appealing. Struggling to come up with the key idea that moves the story? Sleep on it.

This is not exactly a new idea. And in some ways it should seem obvious. Get some sleep and you'll look at a problem with a clearer perspective.

But it can be difficult, sometimes, to accept such wisdom — especially when a deadline is looming or you know that you've procrastinated enough already to deserve to sleep. (Actually, procrastinating writers probably should not spend another hour in the schnazzy looking nap-pod. They'll never get out.) I'm yawning; it's 10:30. I should probably go to bed now. Or at least let my mind shut down for a while and tackle such difficult tasks as cleaning the litter box or take the garbage out for tomorrow's pick up. ... ok, did the garbage.

I was a little surprised the article, which includes a description of famous dream-inspired discoveries, didn't include Friedrich August KekulĂ©'s dream of a snake that was biting its own tail — which led him to envision the ring-structure of benzene. Of course, that tale could be so oft used already as to seem unnecessary to repeat. But I enjoyed reading about Elias Howe's dream; that was new to me.

Inspiration comes from anywhere and happens all the time. A fresh mind can make the connections between seemingly disparate concepts. This is how innovation works.

Anyway, my point is writing is a supremely cerebral activity, regardless of how important it is to simply keep doing it in order to accomplish anything. And even if you keep writing, as Anne Lamott called them, "Shitty first drafts." So if you're struggling with a character or a scene, you can do a few things: keep writing, sleep on it and see what you come up with later, or write something else and let your subconscious mind work out the problems on its own. It'll tell you the answer eventually. You just need to be ready for it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thanks for Voting!

Thanks to those who voted in the first poll on the Elephant's Bookshelf. Looks like those who come here are probably readers or enjoyably sarcastic (yeah, as if I can extrapolate anything from four votes, but I do appreciate them all).

As you might expect, the polls will be related to books, reading, and writing. If you have any that you'd like to suggest, feel free by emailing me at elephantsbookshelf@gmail.com or by posting a comment here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Let the Wild Rumpus Start

Any fan of Maurice Sendak, best known for the wonderful and beautiful children's book Where the Wild Things Are, should take a few moments to read about the author and illustrator in a recent New York Times article.

I must admit, I had no idea about who he was, so the entire piece was interesting to me. It never occurred to me that he was gay, nor that he was a curmudgeon; this latter point actually intrigues me considering the character of Max in the story. But his attitude toward himself — one of self-doubt and of middling significance — I suspect is fairly typical of writers and artists. We often feel that we are not contributing anything of value to the world we hope to beautify and make better.

In Sendak's case, he created one of the greatest, most beloved stories about childhood and imagination ever conceived.

And it's still hot.

Rage on, Mr. Sendak. Do not go gentle.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Zone of Insolvency by Ron Mattocks

This review, which I wrote, appeared previously on a different Web site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly. If you want me to view it without publishing your name, I'll gladly do that. I keep no list of readers, so I won't sell it anywhere.

If you're a current nonprofit board member and there's a horror section in your nonprofit library, you'll want to add Ron Mattocks' Zone of Insolvency to it.

That's because Mattocks makes a convincing case that as many as a third of the nation's tax-exempt organizations are operating in a "zone of insolvency" — a financial state somewhere between solvency and total insolvency — and that it's just a matter of time before another nonprofit financial scandal emerges. According to Mattocks, who has more than thirty years' experience developing the financial strength of nonprofits, organizations operating in a zone of insolvency typically experience some combination of challenges, including dwindling cash reserves, increasing debt, an aging product mix and deferred maintenance, and recurring cash flow problems. Unfortunately, once an organization has entered the zone, there are only three ways out: a financial turnaround, merger, or dissolution.

To bolster his case, Mattocks provides summaries of some of the most notable nonprofit financial scandals of the past seventeen years, including William Aramony's misdeeds at the United Way of America and the Ponzi scheme that was the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy. But he also presents several success stories involving organizations that were able to turn things around — including the United Way of America.

His examples don't just involve financial scandals. Indeed, he offers several examples of organizations whose boards determined that, in the face of a changed or changing environment, the best course of action was to dissolve the organization while it was still providing important services. The National Alliance of Business, for instance, ceased operations in 2003 when its president and board determined that its mission had been accomplished. "The market had changed, new issues had emerged, and new organizations had risen to the challenge," Mattocks writes. "Funding sources had changed, and the organization experienced some net losses." Against that backdrop, the CEO helped convince the organization's stakeholders that its task was complete, to celebrate the organization's success, and to close its doors. Mattocks even provides a case study of Women in Community Service, which he headed for the final five months of its existence. Like NAB, WICS had decades of success to celebrate, but in the end it was unable to raise enough funds to continue operating and put itself out of business.

One lesson any board member should take from the book is that, when an organization is operating in a zone of insolvency, the decisions made by its executive director and board assume a different level of importance. As Mattocks puts it, a board's legal responsibilities expand when an organization is teetering between solvency and insolvency. In fact, in such situations boards need to become more engaged with management issues, and that usually increases the stress between a chief executive and his or her board (a relationship that can be strained even in the best of times). Less obvious, however, is how the zone of insolvency can alter the relationship between organization and donor. If, for example, an organization operating in the zone is offered a major gift with significant restrictions, it needs to make its financial situation crystal clear right up front — or risk violating the donor's legal rights.

To guard against that, Mattocks offers the following advice: "When governing in the zone of insolvency, a board should have special legal counsel to assure that no action benefits one party of interest while disadvantaging others." It's also absolutely critical, he writes, for key members of the board to have adequate directors and officers insurance when governing a financially distressed organization.

Like any good horror story, Zone of Insolvency argues that, in the end, organizations can overcome adversity and return themselves to a strong financial footing. Yes, some organizations will stumble and fail. But in the end, strong, well-managed organizations will survive, and that's how it should be.

So before you start banging out that resignation letter or say no to an invitation to join a nonprofit board, read Mattocks' book. As they say in the movies, forewarned is forearmed — and will keep you from getting hurt.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How I'll Spend My Summer Staycation

Summer is coming to a fast close and I'm getting antsy. I've not taken any time for myself, and time for myself soon will become a commodity I have less of. My wife and I have kids on the way: two, our first. I won't go into much detail about them on this blog because this is not the place for it, but I am certain these little ones will change almost everything in my life.

As a quick aside, I'll say this: over the Labor Day weekend, I got a terrible case of poison oak. I thought I'd been careful, wearing jeans, keeping my gloves on whenever I pulled at anything as I cleared away a backyard full of brush, but it was warm. So I wore short sleeves.

Dealing with the scrapes and welts and yellow fluid were bad enough, but the itch was miserable. I tried Benadryl gel, which helped but was insufficient. I pinked my arms up with Calamine lotion, but it's not always convenient in a work environment. And then there was a funeral. Nothing is ever quite right when a funeral is involved.

After the torrential rain and wind of the past weekend, we finally made our way back home, and I treated my itch with more care. For the most part, I'm back in shape. Yet there is still a dull aching itch I need to scratch.

I'm taking next week off — my summer staycation — and I already have a full list of things I want to accomplish. It's a list I'll never fully complete and which will leave me frustrated at least till January, when my new list of resolutions kicks in. But a key point on that list is to scratch at my itch. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The novel is ready. I have begun to write flawed queries that will not see an envelope, but by the end of next week, the first will be off on its way. I've always needed to write, and I've found excuses not to; I suspect I'm like a lot of "aspiring novelists" in that regard. But I have a novel and I have a need — I don't mean the money, though with hungry pooping progeny on the way, that's not to be dismissed either; I simply don't expect much money to come of it. One must be realistic.

But if I have anything to give these children, it's to teach them that the world is full of potential. They could become many things, and some of their dreams will crumble like fallen eggs, but there will be aspirations that stay with them their entire life. Like writing has for me. I need to show them that it's not only good to pursue one's dreams, it's crucial for life itself. It's the only way to live comfortably when an itch just won't go away.

I've begun writing every day again.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Yes, Virginia, You Need An Agent

For those of you who miss my posts, sorry to have been quiet for the past week or so. The delay between posts may continue this week as well, but I came across this blog post at the Editorial Ass and was quite impressed. Unagented writers should give it a read — and while you're at it, many of the comments are worth reading, too.