Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Backspace Writer's Conference: Day 2

Like fiction, memoirs are stories. The difference is that the author is under the delusion that he or she already knows the characters very well (not true), already knows what happens (also not true) and already knows how it ends (also not true). Having written both a novel and a memoir, I'd say the process for each is very similar; much similar than I ever anticipated.

Why am I writing this? Because it's relevant to the story. Although I went to the conference with the intention to understand how to best pursue publication for Kicking and Screaming, it also stirred my desire to return to writing fiction. Thrillers in particular.

As a few of you might know, I've written a novel called Slip Away, a thriller about a reluctant assassin who's hunted down by a terrorist he unknowingly created (that's called a "tag line"). Slip Away has been "in the drawer" while I focused on Kicking and Screaming. I enjoy reading many other thriller writers, such as Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Nelson DeMille and Michael Crichton. However, the "go to" thriller writer for me has always been David Morrell.

David is best known as the creator of the character Rambo in his novel First Blood (ironically, not one of the twenty or so books of his I've read, yet). My favorites include The Brotherhood of the Rose, The League of Night and Fog and Assumed Identity. Though, I've enjoyed them all and I look forward to the release of his upcoming book, The Shimmer.

Last night, he was awarded "The Bob Kellogg Good Citizen Award" from Backspace for his "outstanding contribution to the Internet writing community." After listening to his keynote address, it's easy to see why. I know I was changed (and motivated) by the experience.

The conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet many gifted writers, especially those who write in different genres, and learn about their work. Hopefully, we'll all get the opportunity to read a fantasy by Brian Staveley, a historical fiction by Marc Graham, and a series by J.E. Taylor soon. Having read the first two pages of their novels, I know I hope I do. Given the topic of this blog, one day I hope to walk into a bookstore and see Jael McHenry's book, Simmer (you'll have to read it to understand why it's related - I didn't want to create a spoiler).

Still, I'm drawn to thrillers. Having the opportunity to meet David Morrell and briefly discuss Slip Away with him was invigorating. Meeting Backspace co-Founder and author of Freezing Point, Karen Dionne was great (if you haven't read Freezing Point yet, go to and buy it now...really...I'll wait). I think all of us at the conference were grateful to Karen and her co-Founder, Chris Graham, for creating such a powerful community. I also enjoyed meeting Jason Pinter, the bestselling author of the Henry Parker thriller series. Add all of that up and you've got a guy ready to get his thriller published.

That doesn't mean I'm going to stop with Kicking and Screaming. In fact, on the flight home from the conference I finished editing the most recent draft and I hope to get it out for another read this week. I'm also going to continue working on my platform, as I discussed last night.

On that same flight, however, I also cut two scenes from Slip Away and reworked the final scene. I also began rethinking a new novel that's been on my mind for a while. I'll be restarting that this week. It'll be fun to start writing something new again.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Backspace Writer's Conference: Day 1

Since The Backspace Writer's Conference is this weekend, I thought I'd take a short break from discussing autism as a topic and Robbie's progress and focus on the book and writing in general for a few days.

The last week has been a blur. It started at 4:00 AM on Tuesday as I awoke to catch a 6:00 AM flight to Chicago. Then Toronto. Then New York. And this was a short week?

Today, however, wasn't a work day in New York. It was the first day of the Backspace Writer's Conference. Backspace is a great organization for writers that I joined in February 2008 when I was still working on my novel (and a few weeks before the idea to write Kicking and Screaming hit me).

The mission statement for Backspace is "Writers Helping Writers". It's primarily an online forum where writers interact, critique each others' work and get advice from those who have made it to the Promised Land - published authors. Many literary agents participate and also provide feedback and advice about how to get to that level beyond the 'mere' writing of a book. It's a community that not only takes writing seriously but the business of writing seriously. How serious is it? In the past year approximately 110 books have been published by Backspace members. In terms of its goal, it's safe to say, "Mission Accomplished".

I'm here because I want to learn what I need to do to get my memoir Kicking and Screaming published. I participated in a workshop that was called "Two Minutes; Two Pages". In it, we each read the first two pages of our book aloud in front of two literary agents and approximately twenty other authors. The agents then provided immediate feedback as if they were reading it as a submission.

No pressure.

In some cases, the agents listened to the full two pages. In other cases, the agents stopped the authors before hearing it all to point out issues or concerns (but they were all quite good). Fortunately, I made it to the end of my second page without being stopped. Overall, I think I came out of it fairly unscathed. There were a few minor comments about the content, and a minor comment about the use of the word "reluctant" in the title. Later in the day, I received a few compliments from other authors who heard/read it. The one concern expressed by the agents was about the number of books already out on autism and the need to have a "platform" - a new buzzword in publishing - to help market the book.

A "platform" is a built-in following or market that an author has established to give publishers confidence that the book can sell. Examples of "platform" include celebrity (probably the most common, since they already have fans that might likely buy their book), credentials (especially for non-fiction), contacts or strong endorsements. Basically, they want to lower their risk. Who doesn't these days?

I created this blog with "platform" in mind. I hope it grows and gains a wide following. There are several other platform-related activities I'm considering. But as Day 1 comes to a close, my own story begins to take an interesting turn - which I'll save for tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Result: Promoted to 2nd Grade

Yesterday was Robbie's fourth and final parent/teacher conference of the year. After all was said and done, the key piece of data: He's been promoted to 2nd grade. I can't say I was terribly nervous about the ultimate result (the promotion). But two months ago, I wasn't so sure. Back then, I wasn't even confident about which school he'd be able to attend.

Given the immediate improvement in his performance after changing classrooms in March, much of that worry evaporated - but not all of it. Some of it still lingered.

We've known that Robbie is smart for a while. However, we were concerned that he'd be able to demonstrate that. In kindergarten, he validated that concern. His test scores ranged from 100% to 0%. We quickly figured out that if he was interested in the test, he did well. If it was a computer-administered test and he wasn't interested, he clicked on the mouse as fast as he could, regardless of the answer, until he was done and could begin playing. Joy and I worked with his teacher and the ARD committee to insure he had close monitoring during tests and the scores moved to where we expected.

Test scores weren't the issue in first grade, although we did see a score drop a bit when they let him try to do it too long on his own. The issue was his flat out rejection of doing any work. I feared that his behavior could hold him back, not the grades.

Everything changed when he changed classes in March. We've learned a few things from this process.

It's very common for children on the autism spectrum to get overwhelmed either by a sensory overload or an anxiety overload. We've known that Robbie is a bit of a perfectionist. What we didn't know was how this could build up over time. Getting things wrong or failing to do things weren't isolated occurrences. They were cumulative events.

In his previous class, he wasn't sure where he stood on a daily basis (which is 'normal' - kids don't get daily report cards). If he missed a problem, he thought he'd dug himself a little hole. When he couldn't do an assignment, he dug a little deeper. When he was overwhelmed by a homework assignment, he dug even deeper. Pretty soon, he was halfway to China with no hope of getting out. He saw this mountain of insurmountable work that he could never complete. Since he was never going to catch up, he gave up. Unfortunately, he was unable to communicate this anxiety to anybody. Everyday had become an anxiety overload and it began the minute he opened his eyes. Welcome to Autism World.

On his first day with his new teacher, she explained to him that he was starting with a clean slate. What was done was done. He was getting a fresh start. I don't think she had any idea just how powerful of a message this was for Robbie (nor did I). For him, the hole he'd been digging was magically filled. The insurmountable mountain of work had disappeared and his anxiety went right along with it. I now believe this was why the change in him was so drastic. Like a light switch, his anxiety was turned off. Everything got better.

Another thing the teacher did was set up a daily scorecard for him. He has five categories of work to complete each day. If he completes his work in a category he gets a smiley face. If he doesn't, he gets a sad face. There are also consequences. If he gets four or five smiley faces a day, he earns a sticker from the teacher. Five stickers earn him the choice of free computer time, free choice time, or no morning work. In addition, if he earns four or five smiley faces a day he can play on the computer when he gets home. Three or less? No computer.

At first, I thought the power of this approach lay only in the consequences and rewards. I now believe there has been an additional benefit. Every day is a new day. There's no buildup. There's no hole being dug. The mountain never becomes bigger than a small pile of dirt. Every day is fresh.

In hindsight, these solutions seem painfully obvious. Unfortunately, they're not - by a long shot. Despite the trial and error nature and unpredictable success rates for any efforts relating to improving an autistic child's environment, dramatic changes like this are rare but not unheard of. When the child is struggling with a sensory or an anxiety overload and the source of the overload can be eliminated, the results can be this dramatic. We've seen it before. However, many obstacles stand in the way of achieving them.

The first is identification. Since the number of conditions or situations that can overload a child on the spectrum is almost unlimited. Knowing which one (or ones) is causing the behavior is almost impossible to predict. In the case of Robbie's classroom issues, our guesses included problems with other students, fluorescent lighting (a known issue with autism), and even the design of the room itself (door vs. no door). His previous teacher did everything she possibly could. But without being able to recognize the issue, it was hard for any of us to know what to do except create a clean slate.

The second is communication. Although Robbie is experiencing the overload, it doesn't mean he can always recognize it, identify it or communicate it. Asking him about it can produce clues but not specifics. This is incredibly frustrating for us as well as him.

And finally, there is an issue of consistency. What caused an overload yesterday might not cause an overload today, but it might cause one tomorrow. At this point, its like playing a game of whack-the-mole until you get lucky.

Nevertheless, this is a huge victory for us; one that could have long lasting effects in helping Robbie manage his situation. It can make a difference in how he manages his school work from here on out. It can even help him manage his career someday.

It can also disappear tomorrow and become meaningless. That's the way it is with autism.

Still, we're going to enjoy the hell out it. Combining yesterday's win at Robbie's parent/teacher conference with Kelly earning her Bronze Award in Girl Scouts, I'd say yesterday was pretty damn good day.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Greeting: It Doesn't Get Better Than This

I'm gonna brag.

When I arrived home last Sunday from my week long trip to Asia, Robbie and Kelly were at a friend's birthday party (an older boy on the autism spectrum). They arrived home about an hour and a half later and it was like a scene from The Waltons.

Knowing I was home, they both burst through the door and ran up the stairs yelling "Daddy!" I met them both about half way down.

After giving them the two-kid hug, Robbie threw his arms around me, gave me a kiss and said, "I missed you so much!"

That was cool.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Mispronunciation: Or Was it?

Remember the TV game show, The Liar's Club? The most recent version of it taped in the late 70's with Allen Ludden (of Password fame and of Mr. Betty White fame) as the host. Regular panelists included White, Larry Hovis (aka Sgt. Carter of Hogan's Heroes), Peter Marshall (of The Hollywood Squares) and David Letterman.

The game included some ridiculous object that the panelists had to study and then provide goofy explanations for its purpose. The players then wagered on which panelist they thought was telling the truth.

Apparently, Robbie wants to start his own Liar's Club, in the form of a company called The Liar's Office. Truth be told, his vision isn't really all that similar to the game show. I just thought the The Liar's Club made a better introduction because I've been watching a lot of old Hogan's Heroes reruns lately.

Anyhow, here's the story of The Liar's Office:

The other day, Joy and Robbie were working in her office when Robbie came over to show her his latest drawing - a drawing of his "company". He pointed to one area of the drawing and said, "This is for my employees. They have a TV. Do employees have TVs to watch?" Apparently, he is going to be a benevolent leader of his company.

"Sometimes in the break room they do," Joy replied. "What kind of company is this?"

"This is the liar's office," he said with a big grin, proud of his latest accomplishment. Joy, on the other hand, was taken aback.

"What?" she began. "This is a liar's office?"

"Yes, liar's office," he replied undeterred. Joy was still perplexed.

"Hmmm....what kind of office is it? What do they do?" she asked. But Robbie held his ground.

"It's the liar's office."

Joy was convinced that Robbie had seen this idea somewhere, probably on the Internet, and she also knew for a seven-year old he is an amazing speller. As she racked her brain to try to figure out what he meant, it dawned on her.

"Robbie," she began. "Do you spell 'liar' L-A-W-Y-E-R?"

"Yes! That's it!" he responded with glee. "The Liar's Office!"

Joy roared with laughter and then corrected him in how to properly pronounce "lawyer" - though it's hard to say he was far off.

"I guess liar and lawyer can be the same sometimes," she added.

"Yeah," Robbie agreed. He remained unaware of the profoundness of his observation.

Not A Legal Notice: Notwithstanding the foregoing, nothing stated herein or implied in any way represents the author's opinion of the legal profession, its participants or its practices. The statements set forth above are provided for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered actionable nor are there any remedies available by law that the author is aware of but then again, he's not an attorney so his opinion should not be considered. Even this statement should not be considered binding, viable or even accurate and has not been provided by anyone who knows anything about the law, the legal profession or its participants and should be ignored in perpetuity.