Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Going Back into a Revision (again and again and again and again and again)

One of the items on my to-do list this week seems pretty straightforward:

Read rough draft of BLANK. 

(Side note: BLANK is not the actual title of this manuscript, but I have a thing about not talking too specifically about books while I am still hip deep in the weeds with them. Also, this particular project doesn't have a settled upon title at the moment. It's morphed around a lot over the years. Recently, I thought I'd hit upon the perfect title before realizing there was a new YA book out with the same one. Ah well. BLANK it is.)

I don't know if you caught the phrase "over the years." 

I say this with a mixture of embarrassment and defiance: BLANK is a book that I have been writing and rewriting since 2002. I'm not exactly sure how many distinct versions of it there are. It morphs around too, subtly changing and expanding and evolving, so that now it's a much bigger production than I ever dared dream it could be when I first started writing it. 

Nova Ren Suma has this great blog series called The Book of My Heart. In the intro she writes about why her own book Imaginary Girls "holds a distinct and special place" in her heart, and she invites other authors to write about their special books.  

If I ever get my book BLANK right--(whatever right means--I'll know it when I see it--so far I have not seen it)--I will send my response to Nova and ask if she will use it in her series. 

BLANK is without question the book of my heart.  

Every couple of years I write a version, and I share it with my long suffering critique partner Donna, and she gives me a lovely peptalk. 



She's learned, you see. The first time, many versions earlier, when I told her I was thinking about going back in, she asked the obvious question: "Why?" 

I stammered for a bit. At that point I hadn't even begun to articulate my obsession. 

Now I've come to the understanding that I have to write this book. It's my story and I'm the only one who can tell it.

Each time I pick it back up, I am refreshed and excited. This is IT, I tell myself. This is the one. And each time I finish, I'm a raw wound, a burned out shell of my former self, vowing never again. If THIS isn't the one, screw it. Forget it. Forget them, those stupid pretend people. 

Until lo and behold, almost like clockwork, those people wake and rise and whisper, and I am compelled to open up the manuscript and try again. 

I thought I was the only one who did this kind of thing--wrote a book over and over--until I came upon an author's note at the back of a novel: 

I have wanted to write about [this] for a very long time. I actually attempted it several times. First while in college, then again right after. I'd almost given up, but a few years ago--after I'd published three novels and really should've known what I was doing -- I threw myself at the legend one more time. And failed again.

The author is Maggie Stiefvater. The book that she's describing is The Scorpio Races, which is pretty much in my top ten favorite books of all time. 

I like to revisit that book. And I like to revisit Maggie Stiefvater's description of the angsty but ultimately successful behind-the-scenes process.  

It's what I've done just now, as I am about to tackle my to-do: 

Read rough draft of BLANK.

I think you may be able to guess what the next item is on the list...

Begin writing. Again. 

(Just one stack of the many many versions.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Non-Writing Days of Summer (also known as: The Slowly Going Out of My Skull with Boredom Days)

To try to explain how loopy I get when I'm not writing-- the other day I posted a picture of a homegrown eggplant on my rarely used Instagram account and was weirdly thrilled to see that 10 people had "liked" it.

When I notice myself thinking/doing stuff like that, I realize it's time I go back to work. 

Which I will do. 

On Monday. 

PS: this IS a really really nice eggplant, but is it truly 10 likes-worth nice of an eggplant?

PPS: no offense to any of the people who liked it. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No Answers. But Thank God for Books

Robin Williams died the other day. Suicide. Which seems to upset and confuse a lot of people. Mostly because we want to understand why. Coping with a death is difficult enough for the ones left behind, but when the death seems to have been preventable, it's even more difficult.

If only the person had asked for help or had gotten therapy or had taken medication or had tried harder to fight his depression or had snapped out of his bad mood or whatever, he'd still be around.

There's also a guilt factor. We wonder if we could've done more. We wonder if it was our fault in some way--to not have noticed the depth of the loved one's depression. Maybe we could've said something/done something or not said something/not done something.

I liked Robin Williams, as most people did.  We liked the version of Robin Williams that Robin Williams showed us. The manic, hilarious, brilliant man who appeared in Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting and The Birdcage and Aladdin. Like millions of other people in my generation, I was introduced to him in Mork and Mindy. I suspect I was not the only kid who put rainbow suspenders on my Christmas list in 1978.

(Side note: I think I wore my rainbow suspenders one time, recognizing that the idea of rainbow suspenders was much cooler than the reality of rainbow suspenders.)

I am not one of those people who thinks suicide is a selfish or cowardly act.

When I was seven years old, my father committed suicide, so I have had a long time to think about suicide and depression and death and loss and grief.

Because I am a reader, I look for my answers--imperfect as they are-- in books.

When I was younger, I did this too. Probably because reading was a nice way to escape from real life. I loved fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Charlotte Sometimes, mysteries like Trixie Belden, and stories about happy families like One of a Kind Family. 

I didn't read many stories about death. But the few that I did read, I read over and over. I didn't realize it when I was a child, but I think I was grappling with the loss of my father, and reading was a safe way to do that.

Some of those books have stayed with me.

A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry. This is Lowry's first book, interestingly enough. (If you don't know Lowery's work--she is the acclaimed author of The Giver, soon to be a movie.) A Summer to Die is about the death of a sibling, the MC's older sister.

Beat the Turtle Drum by Constance C. Greene, also a book about the death of a sibling.

A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs. This book is heartbreaking. Main character Nicole is sleeping over at a friend's house when her entire family is taken away by the Nazis during WWII. She ends up in hiding at a Catholic school. There's a scene that's stuck with me where Nicole has a rare moment of fun with friends and a nun yells at her, basically saying that Nicole has no right to laugh when she doesn't know the fate of her family.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, about the death of a best friend.

Some books I WISH I'd had back when I was a kid:

Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard. Main character who has failed in a suicide attempt befriends a girl whose father committed suicide.

Fall for Anything by Courtney Summers. A girl's father, a famous artist, commits suicide and she teams up with one of his students to figure out why.

Looking for Alaska by John Green. A boy's quest to understand why the girl he loved died.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. There's no death in this book, but it could be a life-saver for a kid struggling with a not-so perfect home life.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Also, a potential life-saver. Romance between a boy named Park and a girl from the wrong side of the tracks named Eleanor.

There are no definitive answers about why some people are so profoundly sad that they feel the only way to end the pain is through death.

Books don't have the answers either. But they give a little bit of comfort. A few hours of escape.

A voice that whispers, You are not alone...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I'm Still Standing (because I have a freaking cyst on my spine)

Yeah. So. I wasn't going to blog about this because it's a big bummer. And because I don't want to bum YOU out and also because I try to avoid writing about non-writing and/or reading related topics unless I am writing about cleaning toilets or my Italian grandmother or college searches or cheesy french fries. 

But sometimes life intervenes in the form of a cyst on your spine, and it pretty much consumes your summer, and it's hard to think about anything else to write.

What happened was at the beginning of the summer, June 20th to be exact, two days before I embarked on my book tour, I woke up with "sciatic" leg pain and my foot went numb. The doctor pumped me up with steroids and pain meds and I had a grand old (yet hazy now) time in California parked out at the pool (on an ice pack) at the Beverly Hills Hilton, strolling around beaches (and getting pooped on--and get this, not being stressed about it. See: pain meds), meeting old friends and bonding with new ones, hugging my son, and doing numerous events that also seem a little hazy now in retrospect, and honestly, if I didn't have my tattoo, I might wonder if the trip actually happened.

I just checked and yes, the tattoo of a foot is presently on my foot so no worries. I am not a complete loony tunes.

I am also not on pain meds anymore. Most of the summer--since the CA trip--is all a nice big hazy memory too, and I discovered that I'd rather experience pain than laze around in La La Land. (although, La La Land is a Lovely Land to visit from time to time.)

It doesn't hurt as much when I stand. So I've been standing a lot. Standing, whilst waiting for different meds and treatments and physical therapy to work. And then I had an MRI and found out I had a cyst on my spine and was relieved. THIS problem could be surgically removed. YES!!

Except a few weeks ago I found out it couldn't.

The ten minute appointment I had with the neurosurgeon was surreal.

I don't want to knock this guy. Okay, I do want to knock this guy. While I was standing, he was sitting, rocking back and forth in his rockable comfortable-looking chair. He had his hands behind his head all relaxed looking as he told me that he couldn't do surgery and he wasn't sure what I should do next and maybe the cyst would go away on its own and blah di blah, and I almost started crying, but thank God I remembered this bit from Louis CK and tried to laugh instead.

If you don't know who Louis CK is, he is a brilliant, hilarious, raunchy comedian. See here (and don't be offended) as he has his own run-in with an unsympathetic *%& doctor:

Anyway, the good news is that I am going to get a second opinion before I embrace my new life as a Stander in a world of happy-looking Sitters.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In Which My Tattoo Teaches Me to Buck Up and Get Back to Work

It's been over a month now since I've returned home from my Summer Lovin' California book tour and some days I wonder if the whole thing was a nice fuzzy dream.

Now I am back to reality, which means stuff like weeding the garden and walking the dog and planning lessons for upcoming presentations and tooling around with a pitch for my next book. For the record, I struggle with pitches. This goes all the way back through my writing life. I just wish there was a way to stick my manuscript into the right editor's hand, and say Read it.

Another for the record: this does not work. So don't bother, kiddos.

A few years ago, after I finished writing and revising my book Thin Space, I actually sat on it for six months because I couldn't think how to pitch it. The truth is, at that point, I was so burned out by writing and submitting and collecting rejections, I couldn't bear to start the whole angsty rollercoaster-y ride again with Thin Space--my sixth book and the book that while I was writing it felt like it might be THE ONE. But I was afraid. What if I was wrong, etc. and it went nowhere like every other book I'd written and hoped was the one.

My writing partner Donna metaphorically slapped me upside the head one day. What are you doing, she asked me. Why aren't you sending that manuscript out?

I whined for a bit about how much I hated writing query letters and she slapped me upside the head again. Oh my God, she said. You're a WRITER. Why can't you write a pitch? Forget it. I'll write the damn thing.

And she did. Ha.

Her pitch was awesome and got multiple rejections and it hardly fazed me.

I don't know if I recommend this approach but it did kinda work for me in the end. The problem with it is that I never really learned how to write a pitch...

Which I am trying to do now.

Donna, where the HECK are you when I need you???

So. forget that for a minute and let me pretend I am back in sunny California. Parked out by the pool and pondering the limes on a lime tree.

Or eating glorious food that I have not prepared myself.

Walking around the San Francisco streets and coming upon an art installation of books flapping in the sky like birds.

And noticing that the words have fallen out of those books and imprinted themselves upon the sidewalk by my feet.

This trip truly does seem like it happened to another person, happened in another life. And I could almost believe this is true, that it was nothing but a lovely hazy dream, but then I look down at my foot.

And see my TATTOO.

It's there.

Which means the trip really did happen, even though now I am firmly back in reality. The weeding, the dog-walking, the lesson planning, the pitch writing.

I can do it this time, write my own pitch. I am not the same woman I was five years ago.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Today Is Yellow Day and Other Reasons Why I Love Teaching

Before I was a writer, I was a teacher. Well, that is not exactly true. I was a writer, always, and then I sorta freaked out about continuing to pursue what seemed like a silly dream (being a published author) and fell into teaching. That's how I used to describe it. Falling, and not a planned career.

My first year as a high school English teacher, I looked around at the experienced teachers (mostly women, many years older than I, at barely 23, and being intimidated. They seemed like MY teachers instead of colleagues.) and thinking, they chose this. Teaching is a calling for them. Something they've always wanted to do.

I felt like an impostor.

After a nightmarish first year, though, I started liking teaching too. I probably could've taught forever, except my husband's job moved us to another state and in the midst of filling out the paperwork to get my teaching certification transferred, I had mini breakdown/midlife crisis.

Did I have the guts to pursue my writing dream or what?

And I realized that leaving a great job that I liked was much harder than quitting a crappy job. (See: Papa Gino's Pizza Place, where my first day on the job they made me wash 5 gazillion pizza pans and wouldn't let me leave until I finished at 2:00AM on a school night. I had no problem whatsoever putting in my two-weeks notice for that job.)  

Leaving teaching behind was hard, but I am glad that I took the chance. Writing is my calling. And pursuing that dream was not falling, but jumping, leaping, flying--off a cliff into the unknown with no teaching certificate to catch me.

I feel extremely blessed that I can write full time. The best perk is the whole Make Your Own Hours/Sit Around In Your Pajamas aspect. I also get a fun kick out of the traveling/promoting (this, after beating back my crazy travel anxiety).

But here's a big surprise: As a writer, I get to be a teacher. This year I've probably visited 30 classrooms to talk about my book or the writing process, or in one case, about the color yellow. (I was in a preschool class and a little girl was wearing a yellow tutu and I asked her if she was a dancer--just trying to make conversation--and she looked at me like I was a weirdo, and said, "No. Today is Yellow Day.") It reminded me how much I loved being a teacher-- all the best parts of teaching--by which I mean actually being in the classroom teaching, instead of dealing with the yucky side stuff like test scores and committee meetings where you talk about test scores.

For a brief horrifying period of time I was a substitute teacher. It was always scary to drive over to a strange school, to check-in with the receptionist, to walk into a classroom of 10th graders or fifth graders or Oh-ma-Lord kindergartners.

In some ways doing an author visit is like being a sub. You don't always know where you're going. Like, where the school is. Or where to park your car. Or how to walk through the, er, metal detectors.

But in a million other nice ways it is not like being a sub. The teacher is sitting there with you, being the main nice thing. So there is no need for you to pull out your rusty classroom discipline skills.What to say to the kid who falls asleep. Or what to do when the fire alarm goes off. Or how to deal with the kid who vomits on his desk.

Not your prob at all when you are a visiting author.

Something that IS the same, whether you are the teacher or the sub or the visiting author, though, and something that I totally forgot (and I don't know how I forgot this!!) is how surprising and funny and smart and sweet and horrible and silly and idiotic and beautiful kids are.

God love that darling boy at the boarding school who saved me from a spider. And the lovely girl who whispered her secret dream and asked what she could say to people who told her it would never come true. And here's hoping that the guy in the front row who'd staggered into class and promptly fell asleep before I even started talking, is getting enough rest these days.

The other day I did a writing lesson at a middle school writing camp and during the idea phase--when we were simply brainstorming memories, one girl was REALLY not getting into the activity. She could think of nothing, she said, and every idea I prompted her with led to more Nothing. The kids at her table, who were supposed to be writing at this point, kept whispering to the girl and she kept whispering back, shooting down their suggestions and writing nothing.

It got on my last nerve to tell you the truth.

Pick up your pencil, I told her (in what I hope was a kind way). Write something. Anything. Writers don't just sit there thinking forever. In the end, if you want to write, you have to WRITE.

Reluctantly, the girl picked up her pencil.

When it was sharing time, she shocked the hell out of me by offering to read aloud.

Her piece was beautiful. I mean, it practically killed me how good it was. After she read it, she smiled sheepishly.

This was a kid that fifteen minutes before I had sorta wanted to throttle, (should I admit that publicly?)  and now I wanted to hug her.

Yeah. So that's why I love teaching so damn much and why it was so hard to leave it behind and why I am ever so grateful that I don't have to.

A bunny in a preschool classroom where it happens to be Yellow Day

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Book Tour Road Part 2: In Which I Drink Mark Zuckerberg's Smoothies, Discover a Glorious Mountain Retreat, and Channel My Italian Grandmother

My son and I have had some weird parallel and intersecting life-moments over the past few years.

While I was slogging angstily through my book submission process, he was going through his college application process. (side note: HIS process was not as angsty or long, although at the time, he disagreed with me-- a handful of months vs. my...um...15+ years. Come ON.)

We snagged our acceptances during the same month. Then he went off to school and I embarked on my debut book year.  

A few weeks ago our lives intersected again. He landed his dream internship at Facebook around the same time I was invited on Simon & Schuster's group author tour through California. Last stop: Menlo Park, the home of Facebook.

There was a little bit of finagling behind the scenes to work it out, but the other authors on the tour, Suzanne Young, Sarah Ockler, and C.J. Flood (and our awesome driver Dolores) were as eager to see Facebook as I was. Sarah's new book #Scandal is about social media-- (Main character Lucy agrees to go to the prom with her best friend's boyfriend and it blows up in her face in a big way all over Facebook.)--so she was über excited to sneak a peek behind the FB curtain.

I hadn't seen my son much lately (only two days home between college and before he took off for CA), so I was über excited to see him, but trying to keep my loopy mom persona tamped down so as not to humiliate him on the job.

Facebook was something else. I don't even know how to describe it. Disney World for adult computer fanatics? Utopian Under the Dome community? From the parking lot, the place looks like a normal set of office buildings, but then you step through to the Other Side and you're sauntering down an outdoor main street, with restaurants and shops and people kneeling on the sidewalk marking it up with colored chalk.

There's a movie screen. And a smoothie shop. The smoothies and the food are there for the taking.

We took.
Suzanne and C.J. check out the snack items in the company store. 
Look! Free toothbrushes already minted up with toothpaste in the restrooms!

My son enjoyed giving us a tour. Mostly, this consisted of pointing out the various food options at Facebook. He typically chooses the BBQ but consented to eat at the Ramadan buffet with us because there were vegetarian selections. Casually, he mentioned where Mark Zuckerberg's office was--ahead, behind a wall of glass. "Sometimes he's sitting in there," he said.

And he WAS! Mark Zuckerberg. Just sitting there, in his hoodie, looking like...Mark Zuckerberg!

We were not allowed to take his picture, I am sorry to say. My son was adamant about that, but in case we didn't get the point, there was a helpful sign taped over Mark's head on the glass window that said: "Please Do Not Take Pictures of the Animals."

We took other picutres though.

I kept hugging my son at odd moments. I just couldn't help myself. He looked so joyful and at home under the bright blue San Francisco sky. When it was time to leave, I almost couldn't bear it.

But the Summer Lovin' crew had another cool event scheduled for the afternoon.

Next stop: Djerassi, a retreat for artists and writers, where our friend and fellow Young Adult writer Nova Ren Suma, was leading a writing retreat for the week. The Djerassi landscape is something else too. On the top of a mountain (a perilous, windy drive that Dolores bravely navigated). Through a redwood forest. Over grasslands. With views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I have never seen anything like it and now have found a new goal in life: to go BACK THERE somehow and be a resident writer.

Our group talking with Nova's group at Djerassi

Nova was gracious to let us jump into her critique time and the writers on the retreat seemed to like picking our brains about the writing and publication process. I was sitting there in wonderment that my head contained one of the brains that people wanted to pick. That I'd just seen my beloved son. That I was on the top of a mountain somewhere in California. That I was on a freaking BOOK TOUR. 

That night we did our last book signing event at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park. My son came with his friend and I just kept looking at him in the audience, fighting the urge to jump out of my seat like a loon and go hug him. 

It occurs to me now as I write this that I may be more like my Italian grandmother than I ever realized. She was an amazing cook and housekeeper (who took housekeeping to new levels

She was also a hugger. Whenever I'd go visit her, we'd be sitting and chatting (about various methods of making spaghetti sauce or cleaning house) and suddenly she'd hop out of her chair and hug me. 

I thought it was sweet. But kinda weird. 

Now, I totally get it.