Why I’m Not Yet Published

Last week, I met with some friends for one of our get-togethers. We all have busy lives, so when we can get together, we tend to spend hours talking. Invariably, it all turns to writing and books.

Invariably, it all turns to me. And why I’m not published yet.

I’ve been hearing this for quite some time, actually. It’s a familiar refrain, like “What could possibly go wrong?” from Top Gear. (I HATE YOU, BBC, I HATE YOU!) The problem (for me) is that I hear it not from other writers, but from my friends – and I love them, I really do – but my friends who do not write novels.

If you don’t write novels, you don’t know what it’s like.

I just finished Heather Sellers’ wonderful Chapter by Chapter (see last week’s post for more information). She addresses this problem in Chapter 25, “Writing is Revising,” and Chapter 26, “Just Want to be Done.”

Here’s the problem:  Agents receive 50+ queries before they wake up in the morning. Every. Single. Day. And when they sit down to read these queries, what they’re doing is looking for reasons to reject authors. They have literally thousands of manuscripts to choose from. They need to narrow the field. Some, they can toss right away:  wrong name, no name, not submitted properly, bad spelling and/or grammar, wrong genre. Some, they can’t reject right away because damn it, the author’s done the thing properly. So they have to read the first chapter or first five pages, or whatever they’ve requested. But guess what? They’re still looking for a reason to reject you. As a writer, your job is to never, ever give them that reason.

How? You revise. You rewrite. You do it over again. And again. And again.

Six years’ worth, if that’s what it bloody takes. Seven. Ten.

The other refrain I heard this past week, which I think I’ve heard before, is “Send it out already. It’s fine. It’s good enough. Besides, the agent and editor will fix whatever’s wrong with it – they’ll want you to make changes anyway, so who cares if it’s perfect or not? JUST SEND IT!”


Here’s what Heather Sellers has to say about that:  “We have passages of brilliant writing. The plot holds together, basically, and there are some excellent moments in our book. Isn’t that enough? Can’t someone else take care of the other stuff? Tables of contents, indexes, chapter titles, fixing the weaker scenes – aren’t there people who do that? Well, yes. Of course there are. They’re called writers. That would be you.”

She then goes on to say:

“Just as no one loves your kids as much as you do, not even the greatest editor on the planet will care as much about your book, its details, its perfection, its publication, its success, as you do. You must be your own editor before you send the book out of your house and into the world.”

See, here’s the problem. The competition to be published has never been greater. It used to be that a nobody with a decent idea but no clue how to write it could be taken under the wing of an agent or editor, and guided through the process. Not anymore. You’re not an Idea Person. You’re the writer, editor, proofreader, researcher, advocate, and RE-WRITER, all rolled into one person. And you’re expected to know your competition. And you’re not competing just against the published authors – you’re competing against those just like you, who aren’t published yet, but desperately want to be. The question is, what are YOU willing to do to make your manuscript stand out?

Again, Sellers:  “Many writers believe – secretly or openly – that someone else will do this . . . ‘Won’t my agent get it ready for publication?’ They want that editor who exists in their mind, that fantasy person from yesteryear who is so devoted to their genius and their book that she puts everything on hold to help them fix it.

“It just doesn’t work that way.

“Not every writer passively expects someone else to do part of his work; there are plenty of writers who do everything they can to their books and then some. And after they’ve set aside the project for a while, they return to it and do even more to improve the book. You are competing with these authors.”

That’s me. That writer. The one doing everything to improve my book and then some.

It is not someone else’s job to fix my book. It is not someone else’s job to write my book. It is not someone else’s job to figure out why the plot’s not working quite the way I want it to. That is my job. And my job isn’t finished until I have figured those things out. And if you write novels, your job isn’t finished, either. Not until that book is the best it can possibly be. As Sellers says, this is a profession. Agents and editors are professionals. They will look much more favorably on your book – your baby – if you present yourself as a professional, too. And by making your book the absolute best it can be – no matter how long that takes – you’re showing that you are a professional. That you take publishing, and writing, and your manuscript, seriously. That you take them and their time seriously.

And THAT is why I am not yet published.

Photo Challenge: Ephemeral

When it comes down to it, isn’t everything ephemeral? Sunsets, flowers, people, buildings. Isn’t that part of what makes life so fascinating? Why we have to get out our cameras and document all the seconds, all the moments, before they flee?

But spring seems to be the most ephemeral season of all. You have to capture the blossoms – and the light – before they’re gone.

pink flowers 1 vghttps://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/ephemeral/

“The most dangerous debt:” Student Loans

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog, when I started it, was write posts that would help out college students. I haven’t really done that. But today, I thought maybe I could give you some thoughts on student debt.

$1.5 trillion. That’s the current amount of total student debt owed by Americans. This is one the reasons why you hear Bernie Sanders and others advocating for the total forgiveness of all student loans – because when we’re drowning in debt, how can we buy houses, or other things that would boost the economy? Some people are making payments of over $1,000 a month on their student loans.

Right now, many high school students are looking at acceptance letters, and community college students are looking at transfer schools, and undergrads are considering graduate schools. One thing you HAVE to worry about, if you are one of these students is student loan debt.

Now. If you are – and there’s no other way to say this – stupid enough to attend a for-profit school like University of Phoenix, you’re going to hear something like this:  “You WILL make enough with this degree to pay back this loan in just a few years! Interest rates are so low – it’s like free money! And it can be forgiven in just a little while – just 25 short years!” They will sell you on financial aid. What they don’t tell you is this:  to afford a for-profit school, you will have to take out two different kinds of loans:  federal and private.

Now. If you are planning to attend a non-profit college (as you should be), then depending on the tuition rates, you may have to do this as well. And I hate that. Know why?

1.) Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Unlike any other kind of debt, you are going to be stuck with these forever.

2.) Private student loans are often at a higher interest rate – and that interest rate is often variable. What that means is this:  after a period of time, usually a few years, the interest rates on these loans will go up. And up. And up. But the interest rate you get on your federal loan is locked in.

3.) If you have to take out that much debt, you are probably attending the wrong school. We all want to go to the Ivy League school. And that’s pricey as hell. The general rule of thumb has always been:  never take out more in student loans than you can expect to make in your first year out of school. In all honesty, I don’t think that’s a very good rule to follow anymore. You’re not guaranteed a job after your graduate! Yes, the economy is getting better, but there is so much competition for jobs out there. And yes, I know, you get that six-month grace period before you have to start making student loans, etc., etc. — but that goes by WAY faster than you think it will. And if you don’t have a job by that time, you’ll have to put your loans in deferral. When you do this, interest accumulates. It is NOT a get out of jail free card! You will have to pay that interest.

4.) Tuition rates are rising almost every year at most schools. What you pay this year is NOT what you will pay next year. I did AmeriCorps, and earned two years’ of education stipends. When I started at WSU as a junior, I ran the numbers and knew that even with my double major, I would have enough money to graduate with my Masters’ degree and only ever need that education stipend. Fast forward four years. I had to take out student loans just to finish my grad school. That’s because, on average, tuition at WSU rose 13% annually. This is not an uncommon rate!

5.) Do not take out more student loans than you absolutely need. Trust me. Please. If I had taken out ONLY what I needed, I would be almost out of debt by now. And I only took out the max on Stafford loans! I can only imagine if I had any private loans. Let me say it again:  take out only what you need. Do not take out more and say “I’ll get a car,” or “I can pay rent,” or whatever. Take out only what you need for your tuition and books and fees. No more. 

6.) Do not listen to anyone, at any school, who encourages you to take out more than you need. They are lying, and if they are at a for-profit school, they are lining their own pockets. In fact, when they give you the hard sell, you need to RUN. A true financial aid adviser will never do this to you.

7.) Do not – under any circumstances – cosign for a student loan with anyone. Remember, you cannot discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy! So let’s say you and your boyfriend are in luuuuv and plan to get married and you decide, because you luuuv him, that you’ll cosign his student loan. Then, two years later, you break up. Guess what? YOUR NAME IS STILL ON THAT LOAN, AND IF HE STOPS MAKING PAYMENTS, THEY CAN AND WILL COME AFTER YOU. Do not do it. Parents, this goes for you as well! If your child cannot get enough loans to attend their dream school, then they need to attend a cheaper school.

8.) Community colleges are excellent choices. Today, with the world turned upside down, more and more students are going to find themselves wondering if moving across the state or country is a wise idea. Trust me, we will return to online learning sometime this fall. So why not go ahead and attend your local community college? For one thing, the tuition is much cheaper:  for the 2018/19 school year, tuition at Wichita State University was $8,270, while tuition for Cowley College (my community college), was $3300. It’s easier to get scholarships and tuition assistance at community colleges in many cases, and there are other benefits as well, including the chance to explore majors, save money, and maybe do things you’d never ever do at a four-year university, like volunteer, or join the theatre group. By the time you get to attend that four-year university, you’ll have a solid GPA, a handle on your major, and you’ll be entering with the junior class – which means smaller class sizes, more one-on-one time with your professors, and two more years’ of personal growth. And, money saved!

Last year, I taught a First Year Experience course for my college. This is for freshmen, and it covers stuff like ‘where is the cafeteria located?’ and ‘how do I drop a class?’ and study habits. It also covers financial literacy, which I think a lot of our freshmen lack in spades. When we talked about student loans, they were pretty sure they were all going to take out student loans (some, not qualifying for either Pell Grants or scholarships, already had). Since I’d just made my payment that month, I showed them my statement.

I took out two subsidized federal loans to finish my graduate degree:  one for $8500 (2008), the other for $17,607 (2009). That was my first problem – I took out too much in loans. I didn’t need the full amount, and I should NOT have taken it. That gave me a grand total of $26, 107 in student loans.

I’ve been paying on these loans since 2010. I will pay off the $8500 loan next month – July. That means it took me 10 years to pay off $8500. The other loan, the one for $17,000? That is only 34% paid off.

I have paid $11,085 in interest on those loans since 2010. 

And these are subsidized federal loans, that do not have variable interest rates. My interest rate is 6.5%.

So I’m begging you, students:  if you must take out student loans, figure out only what you need! And take only that. No more. Don’t listen to your adviser or your financial aid person. They are there to sell you on loans. Listen to me and Suze Orman! Take out only what you need, and plan to pay it off as quickly as you can. The more you can pay on your loans, the faster you can pay them off, and the less interest you’ll pay. Make extra payments when you can. Pay extra every month, even if it’s only $20. The faster you can pay off your loans (and this goes for all loans), the less interest you’ll pay. 

All of this is why student loans are often called ‘the most dangerous debt’ you can take out. They cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. If you have private loans, those interest rates can be variable. And with Betsy de Vos at the helm, for-profit colleges are getting away with screwing over students more than ever. Please, please, if you’re going to college this year, really investigate how much you need to take out in student loans, or if you need to do so at all.

For an in-depth look at why for-profit colleges are the worst idea EVER, watch this 2010 Frontline special from PBS:  https://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-college-inc/

And to prove to you that this isn’t just me being silly, here’s the greatest financial genius of the 20th century, Suze Orman, to tell you all about student loans:  https://www.suzeorman.com/blog/tag/student-loans

And Suze Orman on student loans in May 2019:  https://www.today.com/video/what-to-know-about-student-loans-suze-orman-shares-money-advice-60491845792

Falling Back in Love . . . With Your Manuscript

I have an entire collection of books about writing. I usually go shopping when I’m having a specific issue with one of my works in progress and I don’t quite know how to fix it. Books often give me a new perspective on the problem – and the solution.

This week, I picked up Chapter After Chapter:  Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Deams by Heather Sellers. Sellers wrote the textbook we used for the creative writing course I taught a year ago, so I knew she was a good author. But this book is MILES beyond that textbook!

Heather’s a writer herself, and she doesn’t mince words when it comes to the problems writers face. She writes a lot like I do, in fact, and I’m loving this book for its voice and style and perspective. So far, my favorite chapter is Chapter 7, in which she talks about the fact that when we’re working on a novel, we have to be surrounded by that novel all the time. We need to sleep and breathe it. If we’re at the dentist, we should be thinking about character motivation. If we’re waiting at a train crossing, we can be making voice notes (or real notes, if you prefer that) as to what to do next or solutions to a problem you’ve been having. Or, as she puts it:

“You must allow the book you’re writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life. Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren’t literally putting words on paper in your studio.”

She then compares the relationship you have with your book to a new relationship with another person. In the beginning, it’s great! You’re in luuuuv with each other. It’s fresh and exciting and you can’t wait to show them off to everyone. But then – maybe you move in together. And you notice that they leave the cap off the toothpaste, or they snore at night. Little things begin to annoy you. You begin to wonder if you can get past the annoyances and rekindle the romance. The book, she says, is the same thing. Those first days or weeks are amazing; you’re getting to know the characters, you’re excited about how easily the scenes are coming. But then . . . “You may feel shackled. You feel like you chose the wrong book. The book has flaws. The flaws annoy the heck out of you. The book gets gassy! It’s terrible – there are parts of the book that stink. You get sick of the book.”

This chapter resonated so much with me, I can’t even tell you.

Like most writers, I’ve had that rush of first love. When the words come SO easily, and the scenes flow, and the characters are talking to you and everything that comes out on paper is solid gold. This book is Going Places! And so are you!

THAT’S when the book has you in its grasp. Its hooks are in you. You think about it 24/7. When I’m in the car, I’m thinking about it. When I’m on my walk, I’m thinking about it. When I’m trying to sleep, I’m thinking about it. When I’m with other people – or teaching – or eating – I’m thinking about The Book. Yes. Been there. Done that. It’s a wonderful heady rush.

Then reality sets in. The scenes stop coming so easily. You have to do research. You miss a day or two of writing. For me, I may lose writing time when I have to grade papers or oversee graduate testing. And then . . . . you lose your connection to the characters. The era. The storyline.

I’m facing this problem right now. I set Nicky aside for far too long. He’s still there; I can hear him in my head sometimes. But I’ve had so many other issues to attend to, that his book hasn’t be in the forefront of my life, 24/7, for quite some time. I HATE THAT. I love my books and my characters and I need to be with them. Sometimes, I need to be with them more than I need to be with ‘real’ people.

So what do you do?

Sellers has a great exercise for this, which I’m going to be working on this weekend:  “Make a list of twenty assignments – things that trigger you to think about some aspect of your book. Then place each assignment on its own card and stick one card in your glove box, your day planner, desk drawer, lunch box, mirror.” If you’re just starting on the book, these might be fairly broad. If you’re into it and/or making revisions, they’ll be a lot more specific.

Mine (so far) are going to include things like:

  • Research “shell shock” in World War I soldiers. Symptoms? What can I use?
  • Think about how to finish out that scene where Nicky nearly gets into a wreck on the curve and H catches him there.
  • How does he find out that his dad was murdered? Need to sort that out. Overhear something? A mistake on H’s part? Is that something he can think about while he’s waiting out the revenuers that one night?
  • Order the Winfield Free Press from the KS State Historical Society on microfilm so I can read it, too.

Later, Sellers recommends another exercise:  “In one sitting, create 100 index cards of tasks for completing this project (your book). Tiny, micro-movements – truly ten-minute chunks. . . .” This is positioning, another thing I used to do, and need to do again for Nicky. In positioning, you ready yourself for the next day’s writing time by making sure all your ducks are in a row. Do you have the research you need ready and to hand? Do you have a scene (or two or three) that you’ve asked your subconscious to start working on, so you can sit down and write them? Positioning, Sellers says, is like a map forward. If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you expect to get there? Dumb luck, sure, but that can only take us so far. Even a pantser such as myself can do this one! I love this idea, because it gives me a set goal for the next day. Simply spend a few minutes, a few hours before you need to write, positioning yourself. Then, when your writing time comes, you hit the ground running. Since I love to-do lists, this last one is my cup of tea. 🙂

So hopefully some of these will help you jump-start that project that might be languishing on your hard drive.

(ETA:  I tried this today. I spent an amazing 2 hours at the coffee shop, and wrote 7 pages, single-spaced, plus edited a couple of other scenes. IT CAN WORK!!!) 🙂

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/chapter-after-chapter-heather-sellers/1015562851?ean=9781582976174 – a link to the book Chapter by Chapter.

http://heathersellers.com/site/index.html – Heather Sellers’ website.

Pitches, Pitchapalooza, and What the Bleep Have I Done?

“If you can’t describe a book in one or two pithy sentences that would make you or your mother want to read it, then of course you can’t sell it.”– Michael Kordon, editor-in-chief, Simon & Schuster (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1984).

I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I really hate about writing, it’s the pitching process. Especially with that kind of pressure! Thank you, Mr. Kordon.

I know – it’s a necessary evil if you want an agent. I get it. But there’s so much to it. And the sad part is, I can write a pitch for almost any book I’ve read – but not mine. There’s something about self-aggrandizement that really gets under my skin and makes me want to rip my eyeballs out. Pitching my own book is almost impossible.

What do you leave in? What do you leave out? Is that secondary plotline really important? How much setting do you give vs. how much character development? Are you really getting the point across and grabbing someone’s attention? Every. Single. Word. Counts. Especially if you only have 250 words to do it in, like I did this past week.

Pretty much on a whim, I decided to try my luck at NaNoWriMo’s “Pitchapalooza,” hosted by The Book Doctors, Ariel Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. I haven’t seen a Pitchapalooza in person, though I know they do them at writing conferences and book fairs – basically, authors get 1 minute to pitch their book, not just in front of Ariel and David, but in front of a live audience. The best pitch wins a free consult with them, and hopefully will lead to a better book overall, and introductions to agents who are actively seeking something exactly like your book.

My friend Debra Dockter (debradockter.com) won Pitchapalooza at the Kansas Writer’s Association Conference a few years ago. They made suggestions and introduced her to her current agent. So I knew things could happen. You know, good things.

This Pitchapalooza, though, was online. You got just 250 words to convey the essence of your novel. In addition, the ideal pitch would:

  • showcase your writing ability
  • explain why YOU are the one to write it
  • show what’s unique about this novel
  • and create the same kind of “I have to know what happens next” feeling of a movie trailer.

Not hard, right? No pressure. None at all. So. After working with Deb on my pitch for my young adult novel (Nicky’s story!), I sent it in. They would choose 25 pitches at random to go on their website and be critiqued. The public would then vote and the ‘fan favorite’ would get a consultation.

Random + me = not a snowball’s chance in hell. But I sent it in anyway.

And surprise – I’m one of the 25!

The point of this whole thing is twofold.

One:  here’s a chance to see 25 pitches, for all genres and in all kinds of writing styles and levels of expertise, in one place, complete with fairly in-depth expert commentary on what they like about them – and what needs improved. If you’re not good at writing pitches (like me), this is a GREAT learning opportunity.

And two:  go vote for me and Nicky. 🙂 No, seriously, you should vote for your favorite, but if your favorite happens to be Nicky, that would be brilliant.

In the meantime, I’ll be frantically writing. Because Nicky’s story? It ain’t quite done yet. 🙂


http://www.thebookdoctors.com/2015-nanowrimo-pitchapalooza – The website for the pitches, and where you can vote.


Some helpful links for writing that pitch:



http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000755331 – the winning pitches for Amazon.com’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Awards.

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pitching – the best of Writer’s Digest’s pitch articles, in one convenient location!


Photo Challenge: Walls

As a historian, there are two things that make me very sad.

The walls that soon won’t be:

house 5 vg

And the walls that no longer are.

gates 2

But there are the ones that are still holding on, with help.

tower 1

Top photo:  abandoned house near Ponca City, Oklahoma. December 2014.

Middle photo:  remnants of the White House, 101 Ranch, Marland, Oklahoma. December 2014.

Bottom photo:  old grain elevator (yes, made to look like a medieval tower),101 Ranch, Marland, Oklahoma. Dec. 2014.

http://drc.nationalcowboymuseum.org/exhibits/cunningham/default.aspx – there’s a photo of the White House on this site. It’s the 6th photo down. It was demolished in the 1930s, after the 101 Ranch went bankrupt. If you look at the second photo, an aerial shot of the ranch, the only thing left standing is the grain elevator.


A Magical Evening with Neil Gaiman

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I don’t care about concerts, but I love going to lectures by authors. Hearing them talk about their lives and work and doubts and successes and any little bits of advice and wisdom they care to throw our way.

This Tuesday, I was among the privileged to see Neil Gaiman at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

First, you have to understand that I was channeling my inner Jeremy Clarkson to get there on time (GET OUT OF THE WAY, PEOPLE, YOU CAN GO NINETY ON THE TURNPIKE AND NOT GET CAUGHT!) and we had to park two blocks away and make a mad dash for the venue. I’d never been there before, so we got in, the ushers got us to our seats (Row K, ground floor). As I caught my breath, I started to look around.

Then I looked up.

And I couldn’t breathe again.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center is, at heart, an opera house. You have the ground floor. Then you have two mezzanine balconies. My eyes swept to the back of the ground floor . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up.

Both balconies were full.

Neil Gaiman himself didn’t notice at first, either. He walked out on stage and quickly won us over as his charming, humble self. And then, about five minutes in, he glanced up, blinked, and said, “Look at you guys up there! I’ve just discovered you! Hello!”

The most amazing thing was that he didn’t read his own work – not at first. Instead, he came out and stunned us all by saying, “I’m delighted to be in Tulsa. Because my favorite author is from Tulsa – R.A. Lafferty. Would you mind if I read one of his stories to you first?”

No. Of course we didn’t mind. Not at all. Neil chose Lafferty’s hilarious short story, “The Seven-Day Horror,” and I don’t know if it was the moment, or the story, or the way Neil read it, or if Spaghetti Warehouse spiked my iced tea by accident, but I haven’t laughed so hard at a story in my life. Get it. I beg you. It’s one thing to hear an author read his own work, but to be able to see an author talk about their influences, and the stories that inspired them to write, is amazing.

Neil also talked about the early influence of the library, and how his parents would leave him there to read on his own and explore. When asked about the importance of arts in a world where budget cuts threaten them every single day, he said, “Quality of life is big and huge and important. And if you take away the arts . . . Churchill was told during the war that the art museums should be closed, because they cost money and well, there was a war on. And he said, ‘What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?’ The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.”

The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.

Neil read two of his own wonderful short stories from his new book, Trigger Warning, which started as a Twitter contest. Every month, he posted a new question to his followers such as “What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever found in February?” and chose his favorite responses, and used those as the basis for short stories. “I wanted to prove that writing is a craft, and you could do it as simply as that.” That you could take a very simple prompt, the glimmer of an idea, and from there, let the story evolve.

He took questions from the audience (in the form of pre-written note cards), but no matter how silly (“Who cuts your hair?”), he responded with thought and insight. Most questions were about his writing, and the craft of writing. When asked why he writes, he said, “There’s nothing else I’m any good at! You do not want me driving your taxi . . . What I’m good at doing is writing, stringing words together in ways that hang in people’s heads. When I wasn’t good at it, I had all the confidence in the world. Then I realized I wasn’t brilliant – but it was too late then.”

Then he said, “Pretty much halfway through anything, I remember I’m not very good, that it’s been a fantastic accident. That’s the point where I call my agent . . . and she says ‘Oh, you’re at that point in the book.'” For those of us who doubt our writing every day, to hear one of the greatest authors of today say this was very much a morale booster. My own little Battle of Trenton. 🙂

When asked why he writes, Neil said, “I write books because I want to read them and they don’t exist. Sometimes, I’ll write a book because I want someone else to read it.” His novel Coraline is an example. His daughter would come home from school and tell him stories she’d made up, about a little girl who comes home from school to find that her mum is missing, and a witch has taken her place. He thought, if that’s what she likes, I’ll see what I can find for her. “So I went to the bookstore and asked what they had in the way of horror for a kindergartner. And . . . they quickly asked me to leave.” 🙂

Someone else asked what he thought about breaking the rules of writing. “Before you break the rules, know what they are. Then, throw all of that out the window and do it your way.” But, he emphasized, you have to know the rules first. You need to know why you’re breaking them before you can do it.

I think my favorite answer came to this question, which he read aloud:  “How do you feel when an editor changes your work? And then there’s a little frowny face at the end of it – and that’s the correct answer!”

If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman, you know his stories deal with the fantastic, with magic and fantasy and other wonderful things. Someone – who hopefully is hanging their head in shame still – asked something along the lines of “How do you justify writing things that aren’t real?” You could tell the question threw him; it threw all of us. You could hear the collective gasp from the audience, see people looking around for the culprit. But Neil thought for a moment, and then said, in part, “Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened. People can read Neverwhere and they know there is no secret underground to London where lost people go, but they can go to London for the first time, take the Tube, see all the place names . . . and remember. And maybe it makes them more real, because they’re familiar.”

“Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened.

As my friend’s daughter Sophie said later, it felt like Stephen King was there to promote his book; it felt like Neil Gaiman was there because he wanted to be there. He was utterly charming, self-effacing, and wonderful, and if you ever get the chance to see him in person, I urge you to take it. And don’t hesitate. Not even for one second.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/13/ra-lafferty-secret-sci-fi-genius-poised-for-comeback – a story about R.A. Lafferty’s books from The Guardian.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/trigger-warning-neil-gaiman/1120056945?ean=9780062330260 – link to Trigger Warning

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning – a link to the Diane Rehm Show, and her interview with Neil Gaiman in February 2015.

The Destruction of Our History – ISIS and Nimrud

This week marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day when civil rights activists tried to march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for their right to vote – and were met with violence on the other side of the Edmond Pettus Bridge by armed police.

But I’m not writing about that. Because something much more important happened this week. ISIS decided, for the world, that we should no longer have the historic site of Nimrud. A Biblical Assyrian city, capital of the Assyrian Empire for a time, Nimrud is – was – a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Fat lot of good THAT did.

The city of Nimrud was discovered bIraq;_Nimrud_-_Assyria,_Lamassu's_Guarding_Palace_Entrancey Austin Henry Layard in the 1840s. The story of its discovery was one of the things that propelled me towards history and archaeology. I loved the idea of finding a city covered by desert, of learning to read the ancient Assyrian texts, the statues and reliefs that told story after story of conquest and expansion. But more importantly, I loved the Assyrian libraries – the fact that even though they loved to conquer others, they loved saving history more. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find ancient Sumerian texts. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find documents we can find nowhere else.

Will ISIS someday do the same? Not libraries, obviously, but put their ‘victories’ up on stone walls for all the world to see? For enemies to see, and be terrified by, as they pass through the gates of whatever city ISIS allows to survive to become their capital?

What is the purpose of any of it? What is the purpose of UNESCO, of nations ‘condemning’ the bulldozing and wanton destruction, if they bloody aren’t going to do a damn thing to stop it???

Enough already. How much more do we have to lose? People come and go. We get 50, 70, 100 years if we’re lucky, and then we’re gone. But these sites? These artifacts? They belong to no one. They belong to all of us. They belong to the world. They don’t belong to Iraq or Iran, or Afghanistan. They don’t belong to the Taliban, or to ISIS, or to any other terrorist organizations. Are we going to sit idly by and let these worthless pieces of crap dictate to us what we can and cannot have?

I spend my life trying to make history relevant to students. It’s bloody hard work. I have to fight against prejudice (“History is boring!” “I’ll never need this!”), and previous bad teachers, and the stigma that history is nothing more than names and dates. And nothing could be further from the truth. I take pride in the fact that most of my students are engaged, they care, and I’ve even turned a few into history majors, with a passion for doing for other students what I was able to do for them – make history interesting and most of all, to make it relevant.

So the things ISIS is destroying, they’re just statues, you say? The cities of dead kings? Stone buildings that no one cares about? Bullshit. This is our history. Mesopotamia is where human civilization began. The ancient Sumerians gave way to the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Hebrews, the Babylonians, and the Persians, and a half-dozen other cultures in between. They traded with Egypt, with the Greeks, and even later with the Romans (before, of course, falling to the Romans). They gave us laws and legal codes. They gave us the first written language. They gave us metallurgy. Stone arches (take that, Romans!). The wheel. Irrigation. The first banks. Long-distance trade. Professional armies that didn’t also have to be farmers or something else. Art. The first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which details the Sumerian’s idea of the afterlife. The first poetry known to us. And on.

Without the ancient cultures of the Middle East, we would not have what we do today.

I’m so heartbroken and disgusted by the world’s response. Condemn the destruction? Why aren’t we protecting these sites? Why aren’t we working with the Iraqi government to get the artifacts out of the country, into safe hands? Why did the Baghdad Museum just reopen this week? Are we this stupid? Are we this naive?

I can hear some of you now:  how is this worse than what Hitler did in the 1930s? Trust me, it’s worse. Hitler looted museums, yes, but most of the stolen works were either put into private hands, or sold at auction. Some were destroyed, yes, but not this wholesale destruction we see from ISIS. Hitler wanted many pieces for his own personal museum, which he planned to build after he’d dominated Europe. We are still finding artwork that we thought was lost. It happens all the time.

But if ISIS has their way, there will be no lost artwork to find. It will all simply be in tiny bits and shards. A giant historical jigsaw puzzle that we may – or may not – be able to put together.