Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Keeping It In Perspective

This has been one of those years that remind me to keep everything in perspective. Having both of my children on the cusp of new lives – one a senior in college and the other a senior in high school – it has been an exciting and whirl-wind year guiding them, watching them wrestle with opportunities and disappointments, and ultimately make decisions that will shape their lives.

I have been busy with a new writing project…finally giving up on a project that I struggled with for years. I am happy to be researching and writing again. Thrilled that the characters speak to me and that I am able to create a world on paper for them to inhabit rather than the one in my head. It has been some time since I have felt this secure in my writing – it feels good. And in the meantime, a potential cloud hovers nearby… I am expecting to hear from an agent regarding the revisions to my YA historical. Part of me is fearful of what a rejection will do to my newly rediscovered passion for writing. I have been known to threaten to pull a "Sylvia Plath", to wonder what the purpose is, or to swear never to write again. Is this me just being dramatic? Yes! Is this me questioning the time, effort, and piece of my heart that I put into each of my writings? Yes! Will I do it again? Probably!

But when I watch my son dance around my kitchen at the very thought that he will soon be done with high school (enough to make anyone happy, I think), and when I hear from my daughter that she has been offered her dream job (at a salary she can actually live on), I am reminded that THIS is what is important. Making a life and loving every day. So, yes, I may be disappointed if the news from the agent is not what I would like. And, yes, it may slow me down. But, no, it will not stop me from writing because....as Robin said in our blog’s first post:“I write, therefore I am (a writer)."

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

What to Post?

I've been asked to post. Not sure what to say. I like reading the posts- what a talented group of thinkers, writers, readers. I often feel like I really don't belong. I impressed with the group's tenacity- many have been at the craft for decades. And the wait to publish requires the patience of a saint. As a rather impatient person, I'm convinced I had ADD before it was officially named and medicated for, I'm not sure I have it in me.

But I like the writing part. I like playing with words, putting them on screen- forget all those pretty journals stacked up in my desk drawer-- I can't read my own handwriting anymore. But that doesn't stop me from buying them. I like really small ones, that can fit in pocketbooks and can serve as places to write reminders, shopping lists, phone numbers, menu plans, etc. As well as the occasional story idea or phrase I hear and want to use.

But I digressed. I also like collecting tidbits- phrases from other writers and overheard conversations. When my children were small, I thought everything they said was brilliant, original and hilarious. Those picture books never went anywhere. I've used paragraphs I've collected more as teaching tools- showing students writers' craft. We write imitations of these sentences- noticing the use of certain punctuation, figurative language. At a recent reading conference for educators, I spent the lunch period in the school's library, pouring through as many picture books and poetry books as I could. I've stopped thinking- oh, this looks easy I could do this, because I know it isn't. But I really like collecting them to use in teaching.

Now I think my stories should be more autobiographical, perhaps with a fictional twist. There are all those farm stories and cousins. And tension between siblings. And being a lone Jewish girl in a rural Connecticut town. But I don't quite get the story part. I can retell events- adding that lyrical quality, that story climax and resolution seems contrived. Has being a journalist impaired my ability to write fiction? Plenty of others have done it.

Remember how our 3 year olds always ask "what if?" I need to find that "what if" element.

I just cleaned up my desk top. Much easier than cleaning a closet, searching for the left sandal lost under the exercise clothes. I created new folders. A spring cleaning without the rags and mops, without the cedar blocks, without hauling the sweaters to the attic and replacing them with last summer's t-shirts. It's a start in organizing my writer's life.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From the Character's Point of View

This weekend I visited the area in Virginia where my present manuscript takes place. Having spent a lot of time there in the 40's and 50's, I have remembrances of smells, settings, dialogue and scenes. Returning as an adult and interviewing some of the people who still live there, the need to get "into" the period of the manuscript really intensified. Needless to say, I took lots of notes. And I have been thinking about my characters a lot. I must be on the inside looking out, if I am to be successful at this thing called writing. I cannot write from an "editor's" view. Perhaps that was why Rowling was successful. I think she was "inside" each of her characters, especially Harry.

But to comment on your "writing time," Janet, remember that "writing" takes place even when you are not at the computer. Thinking is writing, too.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Reading to my Daughter

I wrote a picture book several months ago, and then tucked the manuscript into my files to let it languish while I worked on other projects. One day recently it dawned on me that I have my target audience for my picture book living in my house - my 5 year old daughter. Why hadn't I thought of reading her my book earlier?

My daughter has only lately absorbed the idea that Mommy has some work of her own that does not involve her. When she was born, I stopped working to stay home with her, and for the first few years she never heard a peep about Mommy's work, apart from all that I did for hearth and home, because there wasn't much work to speak of. While I am generally at peace with the idea of being a stay-at-home mother, on occasion I've been seized with the fear that my daughter will grow up with no understanding of huge facets of my life, but worse, she herself will not deem work important, modeling herself after me. So, when I returned to writing, little by little I started to mention this part of my life to her, and it felt good to do so. Although my writing still takes a serious sideline to my mothering, I explain to her what I do, and why I love it. My hope is that when she grows up she too will find a way to devote herself to motherhood while fostering a passion for work.

We sat down and I pulled out the manuscript and began to read. There were no pictures, but she didn't seem to mind. I thought, "maybe it's that good...or maybe she's genuinely curious to see what Mom can produce." She laughed a little just when I'd hoped she would. And then, about half way through the story, I could see her attention flag. I read on, trying to deny her fidgeting. About three quarters of the way through she stopped me and said, "Mommy, how long is this book??" Hmmm...not exactly the response I'd hoped for. But guess what? She was right on the money. The story was egregiously long, and I'd been lazy and arrogant in my disregard of what really needed to be done to make it sing. I finished reading her the story, intent on getting right to the revisions.

But a few days later, she brought up the book. She had questions for me about the main character, a few logic points, a few ideas for improvement. But more than anything, I could tell she was just happy to talk to me about a book I'd written. She was proud. And even though I know the book needs work, and may never have a life beyond my own home, seeing my daughter look at me through slightly different eyes is really all the reward I need. Many of us delve into writing children's literature because we've gotten such joy from the books we've read to our children, but there is an additional and singular pleasure in being able to read a story you have written to your own child.

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He Could Eliminate the Wait

In the current “Horn Book Magazine,” Jack Gantos (of Joey Pigza and Rotten Ralph fame) has an article about submitting picture books to three famous Boston children’s editors when he was a creative writing student in the 1970’s: “ . . . you could just call them on the phone and they would invite you over and you could show them your story and illustrations and receive an excellent critique of the material followed by a firm rejection directly to your face—all within an hour. What made it exciting wasn’t the taste of blood in your mouth from the multitude of rejections, but that you could so easily gain access to the editors and they would take the time to page through your dummy book and point our defects of character development and plotting, uneven or dull endings—all sorts of teaching points . . . .”

Hmm- m, a one hour rejection? I wish! Waiting is the WORST part of being a writer.

Gantos, Jack. “As I Was Crossing Boston Common,” HORN BOOK MAGAZINE, March/April, 2008. pp.194-6.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

If J.K. can do it, so can I

Unless you’ve been studying potions at Hogwarts, you’ve heard the news that J.K. Rowling is suing the wannabe publisher of The Harry Potter Lexicon, an encyclopedia of all things Potter.

She says it’s copyright infringement. I wonder why the cease-and-desist order didn’t come sooner, when the encyclopedia was on line. Sounds more like a case of muggle money to me.

But I digress. What really struck me about this case was her saying that the lawsuit has "decimated [her] creative work over the last month" and that she has stopped working on a new novel.

Now that got me thinking. If J.K. can do it, so can I. I’m going to file a lawsuit against the forces of evil—my creative Death Eaters, if you will—that prevent me from finishing my novel too.

To my children, Gabe and DJ, consider yourselves served. Rearing the two of you has truly decimated my creative work. And we’re not talking one month here, we’re talking eight years!

To my husband, Ian, consider yourself served too. If you hadn’t persued that “hot new career opportunity,” I wouldn’t have tabled my manuscript to freelance for the last ten months.

I could go on. Suing people, I mean. My mother, who wants me to stop by to see her newly recovered chair. Maybe I’ll even sue my kids’ hamster, Sammy, whose cage needs cleaning again. And don’t even get me started about the dirty dishes in the sink. Note to self: Sue Fiesta Ware.

Maybe if I make enough money suing people, I can be as rich as J.K. some day.

Then I won’t have to worry about not finishing my novel, either.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Watching the Kids

For most moms, watching the kids means keeping one eye on the kids as they play and the other eye on the mail, the dog, the dishwasher, the contents of the glove compartment, or any other task that requires only one eye. Those moments of independent play allow moms to hover at a distance and get a few things done.

But if you write for children, watching the kids takes on new meaning. It’s those moments of independent play—those minutes watching children absorbed in figuring out how something works, solving their own conflicts without adult intervention, laughing at each others’ jokes—those moments definitely deserve the double-eye. And a notebook.

As the kids get older, it’s harder to do the double-eye. Kids deserve privacy. No tween or teen wants to look up from a science project to see beady-eyed mom ready for a stare-down. And if you want your teens to bring their friends over, you’d better give them some space.

YA-writing-moms must rely on a different sense. Volunteer for carpool and get an earful. With teens, it's all about listening.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

It's About Time!

So, like lots of people, I dream of the day my children’s book get published. The day my book will be the one my students choose to read. The day I will be the author visiting the classroom instead of the teacher being visited. The day I find my book listed on Amazon (with a ton of rave reviews of course… A girl can dream can’t she???)

I meant that last line as a quick joke, but can too much dreaming be a problem?

I think it can.

With writing, it’s just too easy to imagine a perfect “someday”. A dream day when I find all the time I need to turn my ideas into a submission ready manuscript. A day when words flow onto paper without any pesky dead ends and wrong turns.

So far though, that dream day hasn’t come. First I was a busy full time teacher. Now I’m a busy full time mom. And, while I found some time to write (or, should I say one handed type?) when my son was a peacefully feeding infant, now that he’s a truck-loving, forward-roll-turning, chit-chatting toddler, it’s a whole different ballgame.

But that doesn’t mean I have to give up on my dream of being a writer. I just have to act a bit less dream-like in getting to my goal. Does that make any sense?

Let me explain. The other night, I talked to my husband about frustration with trying to find time to write. After looking at my weekly schedule, we decided that it made sense for me to use Monday afternoons for writing. My mother-in-law watches my son then, so I have an uninterrupted block of space.

Sounds perfect, right?

Then came the first Monday of my new plan. Somehow my leisurely afternoon of writing got cut down to under an hour. And, wouldn’t you know it? All my ideas dried up. Forty five minutes of dead ends, wrong turns and staring into space. Finally, in my last five minutes, I began thinking about a rhyming picture book project from a few months earlier and an insightful critique (Thank you, Gale!) that I couldn’t figure out how to implement.

Buzz! Time’s up! Just as I took out the picture book manuscript, it was time to pick up my son.

So, was my writing hour a waste? No way! If I hadn’t made myself sit down and do it (in writer’s language, B.I.C.—butt in chair), I wouldn’t have pulled out that picture book manuscript. And if I hadn’t pulled it out, I wouldn’t have spent every spare second revising it. Plus, once I got back on a writing roll, I ended up creating two new poems and a draft of an emergent reader. (Nap time and the hour just after bed time end up being great for writing too!)

Over the weekend, I mentioned my scheduled writing time to a non-writing friend, and she said, “Sounds pretty tough. What if you’re not inspired?”

I explained to her that if I hadn’t made myself sit down and write, I wouldn’t have gotten inspired. (Very chicken and egg: What came first, the writing or the inspiration?) For me, it’s the writing. I just have to remind myself that I have to make the time if I’m going to find the ideas.

So, I’m curious, how do you all find the time to write?

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