I was exhausted after college. All I wanted was to get a basic day-job and write on the side. But in the early nineties, the tail end of generation X was moving home en masse, and I was no different. After more than six months with no luck finding a place as a receptionist or salesperson, and sleeping on various friends’ sofas (*thanks*, Brenda, Michelle, Ron and Suzette!!) I gave in and returned, in shame and debt, to my parents’ house.
It took another half-year of job applications and the start of graduate school before I found work. And it was fantastic.
Bellcore (short for Bell Communications Research) in Morristown NJ submitted an opening to my temp agency. The “text-to-speech synthesis” team needed someone to work on their “exceptions dictionary.” I didn’t know what any of that meant, but I was willing and desperate. Since I had only a theater degree, I assumed it would be low-level intern-type work, and I was ready to obey and make copies. The first hints of it being a much more interesting job came right from the start: my interview involved playing games.
See, “text-to-speech synthesis” means “teaching computers to talk.” And “exceptions dictionary” means ferreting out situations where the usual pronunciation rules won’t apply. So the boss, Murray Spiegel, had created a few word games to evaluate applicants’ skills. The one I remember best was a list of gibberish words created by a randomizer. My task was to mark any “words” that had letter combinations that don’t appear in normal English. It was timed.
I have no idea how my time compared to other applicants’. I’m a game-and-puzzle person, so I might have been fastest; I don’t know. I’m pretty sure what got me the job, though, was the stuff that slowed me down. I kept asking questions, like “This combination is used only in foreign words that are in common English usage. Do they count?” and “This letter combination appears in normal English words, but never at the front of a word, as it is here. Does that count?” I worried that I was making myself look high-maintenance and stupid, but it turns out those kind of observations were exactly what he was looking for. Despite my artsy degree and lack of computer skills, I was hired.
I was given my own office, with a UNIX computer and a massive telephone listing database (and, as a guinea pig for the nearby video-conference development team, a cool futuristic videophone!). My job was to create a list of exceptions to override the computer’s general pronunciation guidelines. For example, the computer had been taught that “Lastname Firstname I” should be translated to “Firstname I. Lastname.” That works great most of the time, except for when the “World War I Veteran Association” becomes the “War I World Veteran Association”!
At the end of three months, I’d completed a dictionary that far exceeded the goal percentage of accuracy. I was proud of my work, had had a blast hanging with academics and techies (my usual crowd was artsy), and was going to miss the place. To wrap up the job, I created a plan for maintaining accuracy as the database changed. In it I listed the specific principles that should be used in the future to uncover new exceptions for addition to the current dictionary. And that, I assumed, was that.
To my shock, I was asked if I’d stay on to create a system based on those principles. I reminded them I didn’t know how to program. They ordered me two paperback computer language manuals, one on Shell and one on AWK. They played hardball with my temp agency to radically reduce their percentage of my pay and effectively give me a 50% raise. I worked there until I finished graduate school. It was grand.
And it was only possible because Murray Spiegel created games to test an applicant’s skill at the job itself rather than making assumptions about those skills based on college major and past work. I’m very, very grateful.
So, I’ll now give a plug for that man’s terrific book: “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions”. (Warning: site has auto-play music.) Murray is a linguist who, with his friend Rickey Stein, has spent decades collecting Passover’s “four questions” (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” etc.) in every language they could find. The result is fascinating (and sometimes funny!). It’s a great coffee-table book, of interest to anyone intrigued by language, and a fun addition to any seder. I hope some Deb readers will consider ordering a copy.
I’m grateful for the chance he gave me for a good job when I really needed one. Has anyone ever taken a chance on you? Or have you done that favor for someone else?
Dutch rights sold for Deb Sarah’s The Opposite of Me to Sijthoff at auction!
Enter to win an ARC of Deb Joelle’s Restoring Harmony (and two other great books!) over at The Bookologist’s Putnam Palooza Contest!
O magazine picks The Invisible Mountain by Friend of the Debs Carolina de Robertis for a top 10 book of 2009! Carolina was the first guest blogger for the 2010 Debs.
Please help us welcome guest author Maryann McFadden, whose path to publication is an inspiration for anyone who dreams of becoming an author. Here’s her incredible story!
As Thanksgiving approaches, despite the fallen leaves, the colder weather, and the sudden short days, it isn’t hard for me to feel thankful. Being thankful has been a constant for me for the past two years because I finally have the job I’ve always dreamed of. I’m a PUBLISHED AUTHOR!
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, and that dream followed me into middle age, a long and winding journey that took me away from writing for a decade, and then back to it again. I entered a Master’s program and wrote my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, the story of a corporate wife from NJ who runs away to Pawleys Island SC, with high hopes of being published. But then the dream began to fade, as the rejections trickled in, and in. Over 5 years, I received dozens of rejections, and shelved the book three times. Until I took matters into my own hands and self-published it.
Guess what? I got the deal I’d always dreamed of and became a full-fledged author with a major publisher, with a two book hardcover contract. Suddenly writing wasn’t just a dream anymore. It was my job.
The biggest difference in writing the second book as opposed to the first, is having a deadline. You are no longer simply accountable to yourself, and no longer working on the muse’s schedule. As an author under contract, you are working for your publisher, in my case Hyperion Books (owned by Disney, you know “when you wish upon a star…” which a friend used to sing to me as I dreamed of my book getting taken.
Having a one year deadline was a bit terrifying, to say the least. My first novel took me 3 years, but I was also selling real estate full-time. Now I was going to write full-time. But as often happens to me, my life got in the way. My daughter needed me to help each week to care for my granddaughters while she taught online. My mother-in-law’s Parkinson’s worsened, and my husband and I pitched in a bit more. And my own mother was still suffering from an autoimmune illness, so I was spending time with her at various doctors. Needless to say, fitting writing into that schedule wasn’t easy.
I realized, as all this was unfolding around me, that an opportunity was presenting itself. I was now officially part of the “sandwich generation,” women, and men, caught between the needs of their children and grandchildren, while also helping with their aging parents. In other words, my mother and daughter were the bread and I was the bologna! What a great topic for women’s fiction. And so my plot was born, a fictional “sandwich generation” story, with 3 generations of women. Not us, believe me.
As I began to make progress, I would find days where I got nothing done, too exhausted from babysitting, or distracted at my mother-in-law’s to concentrate. And for me that was the hardest thing, having to get the momentum of the story going again. Sometimes I simply had to read through the entire manuscript from the beginning all over again, just to get the thread of the story going in my head again.
While I wrote this new novel, creating a fresh cast of characters, I was constantly revisiting my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, to proof catalog copy, jacket copy, and all the little, exciting details I’d waited my whole life for. I wanted it all to be perfect, so it wasn’t unusual for me to halt the new book in its tracks, to spend a few days honing these tiny pieces of text that would hopefully convince booksellers, and then readers, to pick up my book.
After those few days, content that the jacket copy was the best it could be, tantalizing without giving too much away, I went back to the new book. Switching gears became second nature, after a while, and after six months I had half the novel finished. I submitted it to my editor, terrified.
After all, it had taken me 3 years to write my first novel. Two long days passed and then I heard from my editor. She loved it! I now had another six months to write the rest.
I kept writing, breaking again to agonize over covers, write copy for my new website, get business cards and book marks made up (again, agonizing over every line of text). Soon, it was time for THE RICHEST SEASON to debut nationwide in hardcover. And I was still writing the second book.
The book launch party kicked off about a month of events in the northeast and the south, with me traveling to signings, stopping at stores along the way to sign stock, fielding e-mails from book clubs (yeah!) and interviews with newspapers and radio stations, as well as some local TV. During this wonderful, crazy, busy time I was still…writing the second book. It was due 6 weeks after the launch, and it didn’t seem possible I could get it all done.
But I did. When I finished my book tour, I went to Cape Cod, where my second novel, SO HAPPY TOGETHER, is set. I spent nearly 2 weeks at my sister’s house, writing 10 hours a day, until the book was finished. I submitted it to my editor and…she loved it! So did my publisher! So do I!
Having a deadline, I’ve decided, is not such a bad thing. If not under pressure, I know I would have taken longer to write the new book. Writing with a contract simply means managing your time a bit better, learning how to switch gears, juggling family demands, and deciding that, ultimately, you want to keep living this dream.
I continue to be thankful each day, even when my eyes are crossing and I’m exhausted because although this is the hardest job I’ve ever had, I love it. I’m writing my third novel. And as I write this new cast of characters, I’m still living with the previous two, as I meet with book clubs for THE RICHEST SEASON, handle interviews and publicity for SO HAPPY TOGETHER, and wonder just how many people can possibly talk in my head at the same time!
Maryann is giving away a copy of The Richest Season to one lucky commenter!
You can learn more about Maryann and her books at www.maryannmcfadden.com She is available for book clubs and talks: email@example.com
As you know, I live in Canada. We had our Thanksgiving in October. It doesn’t mean that I’m not thankful this week, it just means that it’s a pretty normal work week up here and the only big meals I had were of the pizza variety.
I thought that since I don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving anymore, I’d celebrate an American instead. She is a fellow Canadian-American who moved up here quite a long time ago. Ten or twelve years ago, I’m not really sure. She’s a writer and that’s how we met.
About this time three years ago, or was it four? Gosh, I don’t know…but a while ago, I was in the habit of reading agent Rachel Vater’s blog. She posted a piece from one of her newer writers that she was really excited about and the piece was about an American living in Canada and trying to get used to metrics. I laughed and laughed over this character trying to buy 100 grams of sliced turkey and ending up with only one and half slices and then trying to pretend like that’s exactly what she wanted. I had had the same deli experiences (only I was buying cheese). How much is a hundred grams exactly? It sounds like a LOT! But it’s not (tip to Americans shopping in Canada, buy it according to how much you want to spend…as in I’ll take $4 worth).
Anyway, I had to contact this writer and tell her how funny she was and that I too was an American, in the process of emigrating to Canada myself. We immediately clicked. The emails began to fly back and forth daily, sometimes hourly, depending on how much one or both of us was procrastinating.
My husband and I have a little shorthand between us. We say that we are peas in a pod and whenever we meet someone that we really click with, we say, “Oh, she’s a pea.” Well, it didn’t take long to know I’d met a pea, and once I told her that, we began to address our emails, “Hello, Pea!” She loved the idea of peas because…well, she’s a pea!
When I landed in Canada in July of 2007, I was alone because my husband was working. I had driven up from Portland, Oregon, so rather than take two more ferries to my new house, my pea invited me to visit her and stay the night. After a lovely dinner, and a nice long chat, I retired to the guest room and she to her bedroom where her husband said, “She’s nice. Where did you meet again?” and she answered, “The internet!” I’m not sure he slept very well that night. But she knew it was okay, because we’re peas.
So this Thanksgiving week, I am particularly thankful for my Canadian-American Pea. And those of you who have been hanging out here any length of time will know how nice she really is because she is former Friday Debutante, Eileen Cook. She’s the best!
And she has a new book coming out, so make sure you buy it because I’ve read it and it’s fantastic and funny, just like her.
For those who don’t know yet, I recently moved back to New York following a 3 year snow reprieve. Upon my return, I started doing the morning show at a new radio station, and was immediately overwhelmed with the sudden demands from a thriving sales department, my new brutal schedule -with a 2am wake-up call- and the daily rigors of marriage and motherhood. As you can imagine, I’ve been cranky and drained, and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself about 3 weeks ago, when I happened to receive an invitation to host an event for a local charity on Long Island. I grudgingly agreed to participate (because frankly, I was feeling like a charity case myself -no sleep, barely eating, and looking pretty disheveled at times when I’ve been too pooped to even comb my hair). Little did I know that charity event would change my outlook so significantly, and make me realize how lucky I really am.
Island Harvest was created in 1992 by a petite gal named Linda Breitstone -who’s heart is so big I’m surprised it fits in her tiny body! One day Linda noticed a local convenience store was throwing out a large amount of food at the end of the day. She asked the owner if she could take the food and donate it to a neighboring soup kitchen. The owner agreed, and Island Harvest was born. Since then, Island Harvest has become the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island.
I had no idea hunger was such an enormous problem just miles from the bright lights of Manhattan. It was even more heart-breaking to learn that more than four hundred thousand CHILDREN go to bed hungry at night. As I mother, I knew there was no turning back. I’ve become personally involved with the organization, and will continue to do whatever I can to spread their message. Toys are great for needy kids during the holidays, getting a new coat is wonderful for their parents, but a meal is something no one should ever have to go without.
I know I’ve got an endless amount of blessings to be thankful for this year.
I was twenty-five and in my very first yoga class when I first heard the expression, “an attitude of gratitude.” My yoga teacher Mary encouraged her students to adopt such an approach and see how it changed our perceptions, and subsequently our lives.
Though yoga was completely foreign to me then, Mary’s idea of consciously deciding to be thankful seemed familiar, probably thanks to my mother’s frequent reminders to “count your blessings.”
I’ve been counting my blessings for years. I make a mental list, ticking off all my many gifts one by one. I start off with general things, such as my family and a strong heart that beats, and wind up with more specific things, such as an afternoon talking about writing with my close friend Lori over blueberry tea.
Counting my blessings tends to make me happier. Sometimes the practice even prevents me from succumbing to dark moods, to which many creative types seem prone.
A recent public experiment in the UK concluded that smiling, counting your blessings and reliving happy memories all boost your mood.
“Thinking of a positive thing that happened the day before was by far the most effective way for people to cheer themselves up,” read an article from the Guardian. “It could be something as simple as a great cup of coffee or meal, watching a good film or television programme, or things going well at work.”
My sister’s family has a similar bedtime ritual. Before turning out the lights she or my brother-in-law often ask their children, “What was your favorite thing about today?” What a beautiful way to send a child off to sleep: not only with a pleasant memory dancing in the mind’s eye, but with the invitation to share it as well.
So, in the spirit of spreading thankfulness, I ask: What was your most positive experience in the past twenty-four hours?
Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope tomorrow (and every day) blesses you with warmth, laughter, and abundance.
Before we get to this week’s post, I wanted to update everyone on something amazing: Remember last Tuesday when I wrote about an 11-year-old girl named Sydney who stood up in support of her librarian – and was verbally attacked by a very nasty man? At the suggestion of a few folks, I tracked Sydney down and chatted with her Mom, who was so touched by our community’s support of Sydney. Now Sydney herself has visited our blog and left her own comment on that post. I urge you to go back and read it if you haven’t already – and feel free to leave more comments for Sydney, who is continuing to fight for her beloved librarians.
Speaking of smart, kind kids, that’s exactly what I’m thankful for this week – and every other week of the year. I have three perfectly imperfect boys. (Four, if you count my husband). Our household overflows with fun, chaos, and dirty socks – and occasional yelling/wrestling matches and screams of “He bit me!” – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Recently, my 10-year-old, Jackson, wrote an essay for his class describing a Thanksgiving meal and I asked him if I could post it here. See, Jack spends a lot of time creating stories and books and drawings – just like I used to when I was his age. He’s thinking about becoming an author one day (hold on; I’m getting verklempt). Now I’m going to turn this over to Jack, who is pictured in a self-portrait.
Our family never eats the normal turkey and stuffing each Thanksgiving. That’s because everybody in our family likes completely different things. My mom and my brother are vegetarians, and my dad and me hate vegetables. My grandparents eat only the world’s weirdest stuff, which are mostly things the rest of our family can’t even pronounce at all.
Last year, my baby brother, Dylan was only 2 weeks old and smaller than the turkey. So don’t expect me to tell you that he ate it. And of course, when we went to our grandparent’s house for dinner, what was on the dining room table was what I call the worlds craziest Thanksgiving dinner. There was Ledo’s Pizza, Vegetarian-Indian food, and too much more weird stuff to fit on this page. But we didn’t care about the food. We just cared about being with family. (My dad and grandpa probably snuck out and watched the football game about 95% of the time.) Hope you enjoyed it!