A path lit by words


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Start at the beginning

the beginning

So it turns out that the editors at The Quotable nominated my story, “Dementia,” for the Pushcart Prize. I’d already “lost” by the time I found out, but I’m thrilled with the nomination and grateful for the reminder that, in addition to my carefully laid plans, there is action going on behind the scenes that I don’t control. Knowing that there are forces at work on my behalf, keeps me working on my behalf.

Lately I’ve turned to books about writing to help me improve my novel. I’ve focused on the beginning, based on the unassailable truth that you’re toast if you don’t get that right. Agents don’t keep reading your book until they get to the good part. They move on to the next one.

Of course, I’ve read tons of books since I started writing. In fact, I read so many that a frustrated friend begged me to stop reading and just write, for God’s sake. Back then, I was imagining the day my first novel would emerge, whole and perfect, just because I’d read Ron Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Fascinating, illuminating, and invaluable; I go back to them–and the other twenty-five books on my writer’s shelf–from time to time.

But it’s a whole different ball game when you’ve completed a manuscript you think is pretty good, and you’re trying to figure out why agents don’t agree. Two books I’d recommend, thanks to my writer friend Martha, are Jeff Gerke’s The First 50 Pages and Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Next up is Bickham’s Scene & Structure. I’m reading my opening scene, checking for the ten core components. I’m pruning backstory best saved for later. I’m raising the stakes and I’m strengthening my villain.

Now I know that when my old friend, Bill, said, “Stop reading and write,” it was only one stage in the process. I did what he asked; I wrote. Now I’m reading again, to make my book better. I’m  “going to school” on my scenes, my structure, my words, and my characters, and it’s helped me learn in a deeper way than the excellent examples included in the books above. Not to mention the fact that when I get the next request for pages, I’ll be that much farther ahead!


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Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!

here's to you

His name was Jake and he was dating my next-door neighbor’s twenty-year-old daughter. Sprawled on the living room sofa, he spoke through a three-beer haze.

“You remind me of someone,” he said.

“I have at least one double in town,” I replied. “A guy from work threw popcorn at her in a movie theater.”

Jake shook his head. “Not a real person. A movie star.”

“No kidding. Which one?”

“I can’t remember her name, but she’s tall and blonde and she has great eyes. We saw her on a DVD. Hey, Jen,” he called to his girlfriend. “What was that movie about the writer who killed herself?”

Sylvia,” Jen said.

I was flattered. “You think I look like Gwyneth Paltrow?”

“Not her,” Jake said. “The mother.”

He meant Blythe Danner, Gwyneth’s mother for real. I thanked him. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Then I added, “The last time someone said I looked like an actress, it was Jacquelyn Bisset.”

“Who?” Jake said.

Who indeed. That happened in the eighties—before Jake was born.

“Do I really remind you of Blythe Danner?” I asked.

Jake waffled. Maybe it was my piercing glare.  “Actually, you look more like that woman in The Graduate.”

It must have been classics night for Jen and Jake. I knew better, this time, than to guess Katharine Ross.

“Anne Bancroft,” I said. “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Yeah, her.”

Still somebody’s mother, and Anne Bancroft is old. In fact, I think she’s dead.

Later, I told my husband Jake thought I looked like Blythe Danner.

“Who?” he asked.

“Blythe Danner. We saw her in Sylvia. She was the mother.”

“What else has she played in?”

I rolled my eyes. “She was Sallie Wingo in Prince of Tides. And Robert de Niro’s wife in those Focker movies.”

“Can’t place her. And I hate those Focker movies.”

What was I thinking? This man asks, “Who?” when I mention Laura Linney or Julianne Margulies or even Shelley Long.

“Who’s Shelley Long?” he asked.

“You know. From Cheers.”

I got a blank stare.

“Sam’s girlfriend,” I nudged.

“Which one?”

“The first one, Diane. She was Fraser’s fiancé.”

“The blonde or the brunette?”

I gave up. “Anyway, after Blythe Danner, it got worse. He told me I look like Anne Bancroft.”

I prepared to list her movie credits, but my husband cut me off with a yelp.

“Mrs. Robinson? Mrs. Robinson was hot!”

“She must have been, if you remember her from the sixties.”

“I was a teenage boy,” he defended himself. Then he smiled. “How old was Anne Bancroft when she made The Graduate?”

Great save, I thought. And a great question. How old was Anne Bancroft when she seduced a young Dustin Hoffman?

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed my smart phone. The Internet can tell me. The Internet knows all. But first I typed Blythe Danner into IMDb. She was born February 3, 1943.

Yup, she’s old.

I typed in Anne Bancroft.

Real name Anna Maria Louisa Italiano. Married to Mel Brooks for forty years. Appeared in sixty movies, made The Graduate in 1967. Born September 17, 1931. Died June 6, 2005.

Rest in peace, Anne, but bless your heart, you were thirty-six when you made that movie!

“She was thirty-six,” I shouted to my husband.

“See?” he said. Then, “How old is Blythe Danner?”

I fluttered my eyelashes and smiled. “I’m sorry. Who?”

 


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Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

On the HBR Blog Network this month, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, referenced The Wolf of Wall Street in his post, “Is Your Boss a Psychopath.” It took me back more than ten years, when I started to write a mystery novel—and realized I knew nothing about how villains think.

Forensic psychologist Barbara Kirwin introduced me to sociopaths and psychopaths in The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent. Kirwin used murderers, serial killers, and rapists to illustrate the distinction between insanity and evil. At the core is the M’Naghten Rule—the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Simply put, the psychopath knows the difference. S/he just doesn’t care.

Repelled and intrigued, I moved on to Robert Hare, Ph. D., whose forty-year career includes developing the psychopathy checklist and the P-scan to test for it. In Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Hare points out the chilling fact that most psychopaths never go to prison. The rest—Hare refers to them as “subcriminal” psychopaths while others call them “successful”—are found in our churches, our governments, our schools, and—badum ching—our corporations.

It was 2002 and we’d just lived through the WorldCom and Enron scandals that gave us Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. Hare’s book got me thinking about the CEOs, C-suite executives, and other managers I’d met over the years—some who destroyed one corporation and moved on to the next, others who seemed to thrive on using and abusing their employees. Hare showed me why psychopaths so often end up in leadership positions:  Their essential characteristics—such as superficial charm, self-confidence, and calm reaction to rapid change and chaos—make them attractive to corporate boards in troubled companies. More often than not, their lack of empathy, high tolerance for risk, and love of power sink the ship instead of turning it around.

In 2005, after more scandals had emerged, Fast Company published an article (also called “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?”) that quoted Hare and mentioned the B-scan, an assessment tool adapted by Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak from the P-scan. “We screen police officers [for psychopathy],” Hare said at the time. “Why not people who are going to handle billions of dollars?”

Fast forward through ten years of corporate collapses and scandals and we still don’t have a screening tool suitable for an organizational setting. Apparently, it’s not easy to validate such a tool, and you have to believe there are legal issues. Psychological Assessment recently reported progress with the B-Scan 360, which uses ratings of others to measure an individual’s psychopathic features in workplace settings. Unfortunately, it still isn’t ready for prime time.

While we’re waiting, psychologists like Clive R. Boddy and others writing business and management articles and blogs are teaching us to spot these real-life villains, so we can eradicate them from our careers and our lives—and keep them in fiction, where they belong.


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Ghost-blogging–don’t tell!

ImageI’ve discovered another type of freelancing that’s a lot of fun–ghost-blogging. Although many people struggle for content, it’s easy for me to riff on a topic after doing some quick research. I’ll admit that I’m torn: It’s good work, but seeing someone else’s name on my work bothers me.

But we’re writers. That’s what we get paid for, and we’re fortunate to find people who appreciate our skills. When I first started freelancing, I was appalled at the meager rates clients offered to writers. I’ve come to believe that more often than not, we writers are to blame. We don’t value our time and talent. It’s taken some time, but I’ve finally learned that writing–usually fun and always absorbing for me–is excruciating for most people. That’s good news for us, especially with the internet and the proliferation of websites. The demand for content–and for writers–will only grow, giving us an ideal opportunity to combine our writing talent with whatever content expertise we’ve amassed through the years.

Mine is in Human Resources, and it’s proving quite useful. Trusting that my audience and my client’s audience are unlikely to cross, here’s a blog we recently posted.

The Future of Agile HR

Last week I checked in with Marie, the Vice President, Human Resources of a mid-size energy firm. We’ve known each other for more than ten years, so I was surprised when she said she couldn’t talk long—she had to go find more hours in her day. It turns out she had just read Accenture’s report on agile organizations and, by extension, agile HR. If you haven’t seen it, have a look. It’s a well-researched, comprehensive, and sobering forecast of what organizations of the future must do to succeed—and the daunting new roles HR will be called on to play.

“I already work sixty hours a week,” my colleague moaned, “and it looks like I’m not doing anything right.”

“Relax,” I consoled her. “It’s thought leadership. It’s supposed to be provocative. It’s meant to be aspirational.”

But Marie’s reaction troubled me. She’s smart and committed, not easily discouraged. I hate that she felt demoralized, yet her timing was perfect because she reminded me of an important truth: thought leadership is relative. One company’s aspirational goal is another’s impossible dream. It’s much like “best” practices: no practice is best unless it’s best for you. I knew that, but Marie reminded me at a critical time—the early months of my new consulting firm.

So here’s what I promise you: I won’t beat my chest. I won’t play to the highest common denominator, the most sophisticated HR organizations, the Fortune 100. I’ll do my best to meet you where you are and to help you determine where you can and should go. You’ll get my honest take on the world of HR, experienced through my clients and my interactions with others in the field. I promise to be practical and thoughtful, focused on advice you can use. And rest assured, I won’t sugarcoat the facts.

To that end, here’s my short take on agile HR. Too often HR is seen as an obstacle, dragging its feet when the business urgently needs an answer, a resource, or a new approach. It’s tempting to cave in to the demand to do “what they want” faster. But agility is much more than speed. It means thinking on your feet, so that rather than cutting corners or improving your time in the same old race, you’re blazing a trail to an extraordinary solution. You must have the vision to last for the long run.

Watch for a paper we’re drafting right now, expanding on this view of agility and offering advice on how to determine the changes you must make—the changes that are right for you.


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“The War for Talent” Rages On

tug of war for talent

One of my freelance writing gigs is helping a former colleague create thought leadership for her website. We share a career in human resources consulting, although our specialties are different: I’ve concentrated on people— talent strategy and management—and her focus is the organization, processes, and systems that make HR work efficiently. Or not.

This morning we were brainstorming blog topics. Like any other form of writing, blogging carries idea anxiety. My advice when someone asks, “What on earth can I blog about?” is to keep an eye on current events, professional news, and industry happenings. If something you see, read, or hear makes your heart sing or your blood boil, there’s a good chance you can blog about it.

I’d just made that statement when we came across a report titled, Predictions for 2014: Building a Strong Talent Pipeline for the Global Economic Recovery. A statement on the first page rang a bell, and the sound wasn’t pretty:

“Back in 1997, McKinsey coined the phrase, ‘war for talent.’ Today, one could argue that the war is over and ‘the talent won.’ ”

I had to read it twice. How can anyone believe that employees have won much of anything in the 17 years since McKinsey published “The War for Talent”? Gallup’s latest research on worldwide employee engagement, “The State of the Global Workplace, 2013” reports that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. That means 87 percent of employees have jobs they’re eager to leave in companies they aren’t proud to work for. That’s winning the war?

Just as “selfie” wormed its way into the urban dictionary, “the war for talent” has invaded the business lexicon (Google the term and you’ll get 110,000,000 results). Legions of researchers and consultants have borrowed, modified, and sometimes butchered the phrase. My favorite misquote is “the war on talent”— an appallingly accurate description of the atrocities employers commit against their “most valuable resource.”

My colleague and I stand with the majority who see the talent war as ongoing, and the contributing factors as complex and abundant. One factor we’ll explore in an upcoming Insight is the impact on employees of HR transformation. Our premise is simple: Intent—for two decades—on becoming a business-savvy strategic partner, HR has focused too much on processes and systems, particularly technology overhauls and upgrades. The unintended consequence? They have shortchanged improvements that would have made their employees more capable, more confident, more creative and innovative—and fully engaged in their work.

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re learning a lot. We’re also finding new angles to explore–and to write about. Stay tuned!


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Friends and recipes

ImageChristmas, for me, means food, and food means new recipes. I’ve bought dozens of cookbooks, torn hundreds of pages from magazines, and exchanged favorites with friends—although lately, I’ve taken the easy way out, searching the treasure trove of online recipes. But the holidays are different and this season I was reminiscing about my mother’s Christmas treats. For the first time in years, I pulled down an old, wooden recipe box—and went on an unscheduled trip down memory lane.

My mom was an average cook, but she was a brilliant baker and confectioner and she loved Christmas. As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey disappeared into potpie and soup, out came the sugar, butter, chocolate and nuts that she transformed into divinity, peanut brittle, and two kinds of fudge. When the candy was finished, she moved on to baking: sweet roll dough shaped into wreaths, decorated with candied cherries and flattened gumdrops cut into holly leaves; pecan, mincemeat, and apple-cranberry pies with lattice tops; and dozens upon dozens of cookies. There were crisp sugar cookies, rolled thin and iced, peanut blossoms studded with Hershey’s kisses, and Snickerdoodles she flattened with the bottom of a sugar-dipped glass. She traded these with friends and shared them at church, arranged them on platters and wrapped them in waxed paper in Santa-themed tins. Only one kind was sacred, kept strictly for family in an old Charles Chips can—the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that she dropped from a spoon.

The box that I’ve stored on a high kitchen shelf for at least thirty years was a gift from Mom when I got married. It’s about four by six inches, engraved with the silhouettes of a rolling pin, an apple, and a bag of sugar. Inside are index cards, some food- and water-stained, others so old the ink has faded. Some are written in my once-neat cursive. Many more are printed, scrawled, and typed by relatives and long-forgotten friends.

Thumbing through those cards, I nearly forget what I’m looking for, because I finally understand what it means when someone says, “my life passed before my eyes.” Summarized here is my life history, in decades: Family recipes from my childhood and teen years, like the baked beans Aunt Peachie brought to every Bardo reunion and the sand tarts Great-Grandma Heilman made from a “pinch of this” and a “handful of that” in her “moderately hot” wood stove. There are recipes from the fifties and sixties, when food manufacturers like Kraft and Campbell’s gave us cream cheese and Jell-O salad (Nana’s go-to dessert for cookouts) and the Kool-Aid ice cream my mom made in the summer.

After college, when I moved out and married, my horizons expanded. I sort recipes by location—Pennsylvania, Toronto, and Atlanta—and subdivide by marriages and jobs. There are early experiments as I learned how to cook—pasta and stir-fries, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, plus a tattered booklet from the crock-pot years. In the midst of these recipes, a few stand out, because the women who shared them were important to me, friends I lost track of when I “moved on,” for one reason or another.

  • Alice’s Kentucky spoon bread, the specialty of a wonderful woman lost to Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dolores’s chocolate chip cream cheese brownies, a recipe I’ve made for my brother, now fifty, on his birthday, for twenty-five years
  • Longie’s pina coladas and whiskey slushes—delicious in Pennsylvania and perfect for our South Carolina heat
  • Linda’s apple dumplings, sure to please my dessert-addict husband
  • Anne’s Margaree Valley French Toast, from her Nova Scotia bed and breakfast, in my friend Bob’s almost unreadable handwriting

I made it through the box without finding Mom’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. Thankfully, I found so much more—a list of old friends I will look up this year, on Facebook or elsewhere, whatever it takes. Maybe one of them will have Mom’s recipe.


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Scanning for Gators

If you asked me what makes Hilton Head an imperfect paradise, I’d have to say it’s the alligators. They lurk in our ponds and lagoons, and some of them are huge–as much as eight feet long, big enough that my Cocker Spaniel would make a nice snack. And Toby is sociable. He’d walk up and sniff one if I let him.

I’ve never seen an alligator run on dry land, but I hear they sprint like Usain Bolt. That makes me protective. I cross to the other side of the road, even if the gator is half a football field away. Call me over-cautious, but I don’t take chances with carnivorous animals. Shoot, I pick Toby up when a too-big dog barrels toward him full-tilt, on the beach. Two weeks ago, that happened with three dogs, each one harmless on its own, scary in a pack. Snarling and snapping ensued. No one was hurt, but I was angry and shaken, afraid we would have to give up our beach walks.

When I complained to a colleague who moonlights as a dog-whisperer, he wasn’t sympathetic. “You’re the problem,” he said. “You’re making your dog a weenie. You have to let him stand on his own or other dogs won’t like him, let alone respect him.”

Ding! went the bell in my head. His words took me back to a lesson I learned from a wise editor when I wrote my first book. She said I protected my heroine and she was right—I loved Ali St. John too much to put her in danger. I kept her leashed and in sight, so I could whisk her away when the going got tough–making her a weak character few readers would care about.

Ali was facing a home-grown terrorist, a man she thought was her friend, and not once did he hurt her or threaten her life. Whenever she faced the slightest risk, I swooped in and rescued her. In the end, she saved the day—a hollow victory because I never made my readers worry that Ali might fail, let alone die.

Here’s what I learned: You don’t have to torture your characters. You do have to test them and disappoint them and make them sweat. You have to let them be wrong and lose—more than once, even badly— so they and your fans can rejoice when they win. As the author, you can “scan for gators,” but you can’t kill them off or chase them away. That’s your protagonist’s job.

It’s still not easy to put my characters in jeopardy. I do it, though, and I trust them to pull through. Left on their own, they often surprise me with their wit and their resilience. My writing is richer and my characters are more engaging, now that they run free.

My dog not so much—weenie or not, he’ll be staying on his leash!