Tuesday, September 27, 2016

When a Friend Reads Your Book...

The hardest part is the wait. When will he open the file? How long will it take for him to finish? He might be putting it off. He's got a ton of other things to do besides scrolling through another mess of a draft-- something he's read once already

or twice.

You won't know exactly when he begins. What his thoughts are as he reads the labored-over sentences and the thrown together junk, the stuff you suspect might be awesome, the massive clunkers that blaze out like a neon sign flashing: THIS IS CRAPPY!!!!

"Tell me the truth," you tell him. "I can take it."

But what you mean is Only tell me the truth if you love it. 

No. I'm joking. Really. Tell me the truth.

Sometimes you get lucky. He'll text you somewhere in the middle. This is great! I'm really enjoying it so far. 


There's nearly always a but--

The but is the key word here because you know it leads to more work.

But the first three chapters are kinda slow...
But I don't understand what's happening in the middle...
But the ending is little confusing...

The worst response is the Meh kind. I liked it. Or,  yeah it was good. You can tell a meh response is coming because it's not easily offered. You have to ask for it, like asking someone what they think of your radically different haircut.

Hint: if he really liked it, he'd tell you.

And this isn't a haircut we're talking about. This is a book you worked on for a year, a book filled with funny lines that you hope are funny and sad stuff that you hope will break people's hearts. Words and images that churned up from some dark weird recess of your brain, your past. Secrets. Fears. Things you wouldn't dare to speak aloud in public.

But now it's all out in the open, laid bare on the page, a snatched butterfly splayed and pinned.

So what do you think of it? you are dying to ask.

What do you think of me?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

I am starting a new book today...

I'm tucked away in the loft of a barn at a writing retreat, curled up on a cozy chair, my laptop on my lap.

Ready to go.

I've got everything I need up here. A bowl of mixed nuts. A blank notebook. A glass of water with a slice of lemon. Three pens and one pencil. An inspirational book on writing that I found earlier gathering dust on a shelf. My reading glasses. A journal where I've been brainstorming.

The idea is hovering around the edges of my brain, not quite coming through, but I can feel it there, a naggy itch.

I went for a walk this morning. There are woods on this retreat. Hiking trails. A stream. Supposedly there are brown bears loping between the trees. I haven't seen one (thank God!) but I did see a snake. It crossed my path and slithered off into the leaves at the edge of the road before I even had time to be afraid.

It's a weird thing about walking alone. Especially when you've got a book flickering around in your head.

I kept looking for signs of it along my walk and then I stopped looking for signs and looked for snakes.

And bears.

Sometimes I am terrified of being in the woods. The quietness that isn't really all that quiet. The stillness that isn't quite still. How the moment you step in, the temperature drops ten degrees. The way the leaves on random trees flicker and twitch even when there isn't a breeze trailing through them.

I am the only one out here. But somehow, I am not alone.

The road bends ahead and disappears in shadow. Where does it go?

My sneakers crunch on the gravel. The woods surround me, dark and impenetrable.  I think lines from random poems. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep/ but I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep...

And weirdly, an old song from Girl Scouts pops into my head. Which gets me singing the song in time to my feet slapping the ground. I wasn't always afraid of the woods. I'm not afraid now. I'm not.

I'm not.  

Around a bend, a farm. So that was unexpected.

And then back into the woods. No closer to figuring out my story. It takes me a year to write a book. It is a crazy-making level of commitment that starts out with good intentions -- to find balance and joy and trust the process and just write for the sake of writing and yadda yadda ya,

and inevitably ends with a manic stretch of ranting and never changing out of my pajamas and forgetting to brush my teeth and who gives a crap about vacuuming. Or making dinner. And disappearing so far inside my own head that some days it's hard to claw my way out.

It's no wonder I have to gird myself to begin. I heard the author Jane Resh Thomas speak once about what it takes to write a book.

Why THIS book? she asked. Why have you decided to devote a year of your life in service to this particular story? You won't be the same person on the other side of it, you know that, right?

Oh, yes, Jane. I know it.

My feet keep smacking the road.

Another dark windy section of forest. A stream somewhere hidden behind the trees, burbling over rocks that I can't see.

Boom, a cornfield. Also, unexpected.

Who plants a cornfield in the woods?

And then I am back in the woods. A shadow walking on the road. Searching for my story. Walking.




back to the barn

up the stairs

to the loft


I begin

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sparks and Sticks and Who the Heck Knows Where Ideas Come From or How to Write a Book Anyway

A teacher friend asked me to speak to her creative writing class on how to begin a story.

Which got me thinking about how, exactly, I begin a story.

I can talk about craft, the writer's "toolbox" as Stephen King calls it. Throw out words like Hook and Inciting Incident. Stress the importance of the opening paragraphs, the creation of characters and conflict and setting. Dialogue and sensory details. Oh, I guess we should talk about Theme. Bluh.

But I suspect the students in the creative writing class have heard all of that before. They've read stories and deconstructed stories. Written book reports and analyzed symbols. Taken tests on What's the Main Idea? and List the supporting details.

All of this stuff is helpful to know -- when it comes to understanding how a story works (or doesn't), but I'm not sure how helpful it is for the writer facing a blank computer screen or gripping a pen against a notebook page.

How do you begin a story?

Where does an idea for a story come from? And once you have that idea, how do you go about developing it?

The answer, I am reluctant to admit to the creative writing students, is: I don't know.

The author Sid Fleischman has what he calls the Two Sticks Theory. Just as it takes two sticks to make a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story.

The theory rings true to me. I can go back through stories and books I've written and trace the genesis of them back to two ideas-- or more. But that's clearer when I've already written in the story.

Before I begin, I just have vague strands and snippets floating around in my head. A barefoot boy. A Celtic belief in thin places. A girl moving to a new town. A ghost hovering over a bed. The crappy gray weather that is November in Columbus Ohio.

How do those strands and snippets wind themselves into a coherent story?

I'm back to I don't know.

There's the BIC philosophy of writing a book...

Where you, um, put your Butt In the Chair and write the book. For more info on how to manage this feat, check out the reams of manuals written on discipline and motivation, how to break through writer's block, how to beat back resistance and bang out your novel.

If those books sound too militant and hard core to you, check out the woo-woo-y books on inspiring your inner artist and nurturing your creative self and finding joy in your process and meditating (or walking or showering) your way through plot holes.

Ask any writer for a word of advice and you'll hear stuff like:

Write every day
Don't write every day
Write a shitty first draft and worry about revision later
What? Are you nuts? Outline that sucker first and then write!
Wake up early
Stay up late
Hand write

And I am back to I Don't Know.

Maybe in the end it comes down to finding the thing that works for you and doing it until it doesn't work anymore and then trying something else. You write because you have a story to tell and it gets rejected and you quit

or you keep writing and you get better. Your stories are published and they do well or they sink like stones and disappear, but you keep writing because what else are you going to do

and in a few weeks you'll start a new story and you have your vague strands and snippets bobbing around in your head and you're not sure what to do with them yet, but whatever, you'll figure it out.

First, though, you've got to change out of your pajamas! You're visiting a creative writing classroom in like, an hour, and you need to plan what you are going to say.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Playing Tourist in Your Hometown

I lived in Memphis for ten years before I ever visited Graceland. For the longest time I didn't even know where the place was exactly. One summer an aunt who was a huge Elvis fan came to visit and my husband and I took her over and ended up doing the tour with her, surprising ourselves by enjoying the experience.

The Jungle Room, let me tell you, is strangely fascinating. And the TV screens lining the walls of the Welcome Center, the ones playing endless loops of young Elvis singing and gyrating, are mesmerizing, and a good reminder why every year 600,000 tourists slap down 80 bucks a piece to check the place out.

I don't know why we waited so long.

When my husband and I lived in Lexington, Kentucky we did a better job of playing tourist. We took the kids out to the Horse Park and the horse races at Keeneland. We did the obligatory bourbon tour at Woodford Reserve (multiple times) and poked around the Mary Todd Lincoln House (once).

And when we moved to Columbus, Ohio we were determined to venture forth and see the sights. We did. Sorta. At least the biggies. The Columbus Zoo and the Franklin Park Conservatory. The Columbus Museum of Art and German Village.

And um, yeah. That's about it.

Now our kids are grown up and gallivanting around the world having fun adventures and it's not like we can drive up to Canada every weekend ourselves, so the other day we decided to play tourist in downtown Columbus.

What spurred this on was my husband's company took part in an American Heart Association Walk and he'd sign both of us up and we had to put the location for the Walk onto our GPS.

*Downtown Columbus, for the record, is literally 10 minutes away from where we live.

We parked and found the starting line and walked along with the thousands of other people through the blocked off streets of downtown and pretty much marveled the entire way. Who knew the path by the river was lined with so many lovely fountains?

And huh, this is a really nice city, isn't it, honey?

Anyway, the next day we started early and headed downtown again, already old pros at finding our ten-minutes-away-destination. There's a cool website we stumbled upon with downloadable maps of walking tours and a phone number you can call to listen to interesting historical and architectural and artsy tidbits along the way.

Looking like total touristy doofballs, we walked around with our map and a phone held out between us, on speaker, so we could listen to the fun, never-before-heard-of-factoids about the place where we've lived for nine years.

Did you know, for example, that Columbus used to be the buggy capital of the world?

Or that there's a huge arch leftover from what was once the entrance to a train station (this was an amazing place that was torn down in the 1970's at night, so preservationists couldn't stop the demolition, and in the end, all that was left was the arch. Which is kind of a bummer, but woo woo, progress).

And in front of City Hall there's a three-ton, twenty-foot high bronze statue of Christopher Columbus given to the city by Genoa, Italy, because-- interesting fact: Columbus was named after Columbus. 

We ambled around for four miles, ending at the North Market, the old warehouse that's been converted into a funky farmer's market, where we bought fourteen dollars worth of macarons, planning to eat them later.

But then, changing our minds because we were playing tourist. And tourists eat fourteen dollars worth of macarons whenever they feel like it.

So we did.

The end.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Moving Day, Part Two

The other day I hefted five boxes out of my son's room and mailed them to him in California.

Before I hefted the boxes out of the room, I thumbed through the things left behind--the books on the bookshelves, the plastic bag on the floor filled with lacrosse balls, the rumpled viola sheet music on the desk, the closet, now empty, except for a pair of old soccer cleats.

After I mailed the boxes, I came home and wandered around for a while feeling weepy and silly over feeling weepy because it's not like I didn't know my son was leaving. And anyway, he's happy and I'm happy for him and tra la la.

When my son was packing up the boxes a few weeks earlier, I didn't help him, except to offer garbage bags, in case he wanted to chuck anything in the trash, and a box for Goodwill, in case he wanted to donate anything to Goodwill. I told him he didn't have to make up his mind about anything if he didn't want to. If there was stuff he wasn't sure about, stuff he might want to hold onto, but didn't feel like packing, he could feel free to leave it at our house.

It's not like his room was going anywhere, I told him.

He said, okay.

Which made me wonder if the books left behind and the lacrosse balls and the viola sheet music and the soccer cleats fell into the category of stuff to hold onto for later. Or not.

It's hard to guess the things that matter to people, even people you know well.

When I was packing up the things in my own childhood bedroom a million years ago, I didn't feel a particular attachment to much of it.

I was going away to college 1250 miles away, flying there. So packing space was limited. What I was most worried about were clothes. I didn't have a lot, at least anything that felt fashionable (whatever that was). I'd gone to Catholic schools and had worn uniforms for most of my life. Also, I lived in Connecticut and owned a lot of winter-y related stuff and my college was in Memphis and I suspected I wouldn't need many sweaters and long sleeved blouses, the bulk of my meager wardrobe.

I left behind my long winter coat, the one my stepfather bought me when I was in ninth grade. I left behind my hefty feather pillow.

My stereo system. My albums. The much-played Van Halen and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and the Journey Escape record that I'd won at the county fair.

My two shelves of books, my prized collection of Trixie Belden books, the complete set of sixteen, the books an aunt had given me when I was a child, two or three a year, on birthdays and at Christmas, the books I'd read over and over, from number one Secret of the Mansion to number sixteen The Mystery of the Missing Heiress, the books that deposited me safely out of my childhood for a blessed few hours here and there.

The day before I flew away to Memphis, I hefted a trunk over to that same aunt's house. Inside the trunk were all of my journals and diaries, every story I'd ever written and two novel manuscripts, photos and mementos.

And then I left my childhood bedroom behind. My younger brother took the room when I went away to college. I gave him the key for the deadbolt lock that my boyfriend had installed on my bedroom door. Why, you might ask, did I need a deadbolt lock on my bedroom door?


Let's just say that after my sophomore year I never went home again except to visit. Somewhere along the way, all of the things I left behind in my childhood bedroom disappeared. The pillow. The albums. The books.

When I graduated from college, my aunt drove from Connecticut to Memphis to attend the ceremony. Inside the car she'd packed the trunk of my stories. She gave them to me, and then she surprised me by giving me the car too.

How do you even begin to express gratitude for gifts like these?

The other day my husband suggested we turn our son's room into a guest room.

Let's wait a little while, I said.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Marcie Colleen's an Author On the Verge

One of the many perks of being a Regional Advisor in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is getting to meet writers and children's book industry people from all over the place.

Last Saturday, for example, the lovely Marcie Colleen, author of a multitude of soon-to-be released picture books and chapter books, was in town. Marcie's connection with an SCBWI chapter in California led to a connection with our local chapter in Ohio

which led to a group of us meeting for breakfast, where we had conversation with Marcie that was too inspirational not to share.

I say inspirational because Marcie has been plugging away writing children's books and pursuing publication for years and now her dream is just about to come true-- not one book on the shelf, but two, followed in the next year by two others, and that is only the beginning.

Inspirational too, because her road to publication was especially rocky, starting in the low moment when she lost her job in New York City.

Marcie's background is in theater education and during the height of the financial crisis in 2009, the theater industry was hurting like every industry. "I was afraid," Marcie told us, "very aware that I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the country and suddenly jobless with no solid prospects on the horizon."

Her mother's gentle reminder that she could always come home was a nice offer-- but also, a jolt of motivation.

Something I always find fascinating when I hear about fellow authors' journeys is how much of an interplay there is between hard work, determination... and luck. Marcie's luck came in the form of her husband's (then her boyfriend) publishing industry contacts. He knew Little Brown editor Alvina Ling and when Marcie wrote her first picture book, he passed it along to Ling to look over.

This is the part of the story that beginning writers dream of and imagine is the secret backdoor way into Publishing.

Splash-of-cold-water Truth: it rarely happens that way in real life, and it didn't happen that way for Marcie either. For one, she admits that her first stab at a picture book wasn't all that great. Fortunately, Alvina Ling was kind enough to not dwell on that with Marcie.

She did not buy the picture book. Instead, she gave Marcie some advice:

Take a writing class
Find a critique group

Marcie did all three of these over the next several years, taking classes online, and when she couldn't find a critique group in her area, forming her own. In the meantime she wrote a ton and read a ton, not submitting anything at all until she felt that she had a better sense of the writing craft and the industry. [shameless plug: it really does help to join SCBWI!]

When she was ready to submit again, she had a few completed polished projects, and one of these snagged the attention of an agent. Things happened quickly after that. One book sale, the picture book The Adventure of the Penguinaut with Scholastic in 2018, and another, Love,Triangle with Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins in 2017.

And then another fun opportunity came her way, the eight-book Super Happy Party Bear series developed with Erin Stein at Macmillan. In the cool twisty world of publishing, the first two books of that series, which were written after the picture books, will be out Sept. 6, 2016 and featured in Target.

Marcie had never written a chapter book up to to that point, but she threw herself into learning about the genre and is happy that she said yes to the opportunity.

And saying yes seemed to be the theme of our group breakfast with Marcie. Yes-- to putting your work out there and facing lots of rejection, Yes-- to plunging into learning everything you can about your craft and the industry, Yes-- to making contacts and new friends, Yes-- to hard work, and

Yes-- to recognizing lucky opportunities when they come your way, even when they don't quite work out how you dream...

Because in the end, saying Yes is the only surefire way to make your dreams come true.

For more about Marcie Colleen and her soon-to-be-released array of books, check out her website here: thisisMarcieColleen.com

Friday, August 12, 2016

Don't Know Much About Canadian Geography

Last weekend my husband and I dropped our grown son off at the airport at 4:30 in the morning, said one final goodbye as he tromped off blearily, yet excited, weighted down by multiple backpacks, to embark upon his new life on the opposite side of the country,

and then we got back into the car and my husband asked me if I was going to cry and I said, No.

Maybe I was tired because it was 4:30 in the morning or maybe I'd already made my peace, in a way, with the goodbye to our son--it's not like I didn't know it was coming--and it goes without saying that I am thrilled for him--

Or maybe I was a little excited myself about the adventures that lie ahead, for my son, of course, but also for my husband and me,

and I was looking forward to an actual adventure-- the spur of the moment road trip that my husband and I decided to take that very day.

Neither one of us had ever been to Niagara Falls and the place is less than six hours away and the thought of returning to the dark quiet empty nest house (if you don't count the dog, the cat, the fish, and the possibly enchanted plants in the garden) just seemed kinda depressing to both of us.

So off we went.

But first a pit stop at the airport McDonalds for much needed coffee. And then, off we went!

We went to the Canadian side of Niagara because we had heard from various people in the know that it was the Better Side. Whatever that meant. Something funny about this trip is how unplanned it was.

My husband, if you don't know the guy, is a big-time planner-- (it's his literal job) -- and his planning abilities always spill over into our vacations. I'm talking excel spreadsheets of sights we will see and meals we will eat. Wondering what the restaurant reviews are for that pizza place in San Francisco? My husband can tell you.

My role, on these vacations, is to show up and go with the flow, as we follow his meticulously crafted itinerary.

For some reason though, (my husband's own empty nest melancholy?) there was no meticulously crafted excel spreadsheet for this Niagara trip. 

We were throwing caution to the wind, driving by the seat of our GPS, caught in a bit of traffic crossing the Canadian border because my husband had not googled the various border crossings to compare traffic lines ahead of time!

I know. INSANE!

But somehow we managed to make it over to Canada, chatting as we did about how little we knew about Canada and Niagara Falls. For example, I did not know what province we were in (Ontario), or that there are two Great Lakes in the region (Ontario and Erie).

That the water of the Niagara River is mesmerizing as it flows over the Falls. You can go down into a tunnel and feel the vibrations as it crashes over the rocks. And when you take a boat tour on the river, you'll be close enough to the churning falls to get your hair wet.


I know this because my husband and I did another completely spontaneous thing: we signed up for a bus tour. This is something true Planners NEVER do. I mean, really, why would you pay a tour operator to cart you around from site to site when you could research all of this stuff in advance and cart your own selves around?

We loved our tour guide and we loved being carted around and told what to look at and where to go. We also loved skipping all the long lines and moving with our tour group ahead of all the poor planning do-it-yourselfer-save money suckers people.

The only thing we had to do on the tour was make it back to the bus at the designated time.

Fun fact: We were the last people to make it back to the bus at the designated time. I don't know how this happened to such dutiful obedient rule followers as my husband and me. It was like we had lost our damn minds.

We also may have lost our minds the next day when at the spur-of-the-moment we drove up to a town called Niagara on the Lake, parked our car in the first lot we came to, walked ten steps and wandered into a shop where we discovered that a winery tour was about to begin,

and bought tickets to go on the tour, because what the hey? Why not drink 25 glasses of wine at 10 o'clock in the morning?

Oh my God, that was a fun wine tour.

Ontario, apparently, is known for its wineries. Something something about the climate, the air moving from the lake across the land and bumping into a hill or whatever.

Oh, and there's this crazy good tasting wine called Ice Wine, where the grape growers wait until the grapes are frozen and then they pick them and do whatever it is to make wine with them.

Ice Wine is particularly tasty after you've drunk 20 other glasses of wine.

So tasty, in fact, that you buy a bottle and not realize until after you pay with the weirdo plastic-y Canadian money, that you just spent like, 75 dollars.

Also, the people on the wine tour think you're funny because they're all Canadian and you're the doofball American asking, wait, what lake is this again? after drinking the insanely expensive Ice Wine.

But then, on the bus ride back to town, they forgive you for your ignorance when you tell them that 24 hours earlier you dropped your son off at the airport so he could fly off to his new life on the other side of America. The woman on the bus next to you is your new best friend and she shows you pictures of her grandchildren,

and you think, holy moly, one of these days we're probably going to have grandchildren and won't that be a...(gulp)...fun adventure,

and then it's time to say goodbye to the lovely Canadians, and you and your husband drive back over the border, back to your quiet dark house and happy-to-see-you pets and enchanted plants

where you pour two glasses of Ice Wine

and you say, Cheers.