Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Writing for Children, Message in Mind

I came across a tweet last week about writing for children that said if the writer’s message is to teach a lesson, the writer should throw that book away and start something else. As a new writer of children’s books, I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

I think the person is referring to a heavy-handed approach, kind of a checklist approach toward indoctrinating kids with the moral lessons the author thinks they ought to know. Think of the Berenstein Bears, where I imagine there’s a book addressing each one of the seven deadly sins. I know a lot of kids, and parents, love these books, but I’ve always had a hard time with them. Mama knows everything! Papa is an idiot! All the kids need is a list of rules and they’ll fall in line! When I finish reading one of these books to my kids, the first thing I feel like doing is turning to them and saying, “Now, honeys, do you see how the brother and sister were doing the same naughty thing you were and then…” I try not to do this, but the books really seem to force that kind of reaction, which makes me crazy.

That said, I’m not against books with lessons. I just prefer a bit more subtlety. Have you read this year’s Newbery winner, “Last Stop on Market Street”? It’s a picture book chock full of messages for kids, about looking for beauty in unexpected places, but more importantly, about helping to create that beauty by your own actions. The book provides a great lesson on how everyone, even a young child, can make a difference in somebody’s life by giving of themselves.

Now I don’t know that the author and illustrator (Matt De La Pena and Christian Robinson) set out to craft this specific message. I imagine Matt might have sat down to tell a story about a boy and his grandma. That’s where stories begin for me. In my debut picture book, “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” I wanted to explore the relationship between a young girl and her classmate who has a tendency to make things up. As the idea evolved, it became a book “about” empathy but I believe a young child would say it’s a book about a couple of kids and whether or not one of them has a horse, and that’s fine with me. I do hope they pick up on the message of empathy, however. But back to that tweet. Is it wrong for me to hope kids learn a lesson from my book?

Every day, I’m hearing stories about kids being put down for their differences. In our own neighborhood school, kids have told students of color to leave the country, citing the words of our president-elect. It’s hard to be a parent, a writer, a human, and not get depressed. But after a week of feeling complete despair post-election, I got back to the keyboard. I have to tell you, I’m so glad to be writing for children right now.

Every week I go into our public elementary and volunteer in the classroom, and I see these kids who have more common sense and more kindness than anyone gives them credit for. The hateful things said by a very small number of young kids are nothing more than a repetition of what they’ve heard on TV or, unfortunately, from the adults in their lives.

But if kids can make a connection with a book in which kindness prevails, then they might start to believe that, even if there are multiple forces in their lives telling them otherwise. I’m more than okay with my books, or anyone’s, having messages, especially if those messages help raise a generation of people who are a little more tolerant toward each other.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Obligatory Contemplative Post-Book-Sale Blog Post

My debut picture book, “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” sold to Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers last week. There’s a period at the end of that sentence, though there should probably be 25 exclamation points. But that was last week, and like all human creatures, I’ve adapted to this incredible good news and returned to my baseline state of happiness. There’s a big, fancy term for this. It’s called “hedonic adaptation,” one of many facts I discovered while researching the writing project I’ve been working on for years, my adult literary novel, “Happy, Indiana.” That was the book I was planning to sell.
What's next for me, world?
“Adrian Simcox” was a side project, born on a rainy spring afternoon when a burst of inspiration, brought on by reading a stack of award-winning picture books (and an extra cup of coffee), sent me to my file of kid-book ideas and quickly then to my computer. The book came out in one session, as I nervously watched the clock because I had to pick up my kids from school, but wanted to get every thought down on paper first. I was in the “zone” and when you’re in there, you don’t ask questions; you just write. It needed editing, of course, lots, but still I felt with that first draft that I might have done something special.

Two years ago, I posted this piece about how I don’t write for children, primarily because it’s super hard and I’m not good enough. I left the door open for the possibility, though. And now, with this picture book sale, that door has been opened with such force that the hinges have popped right off. That’s an exhilarating feeling, a scary one, too. Before the sale was even final, I was wondering if I could pull something like this off a second time, and my ever-patient husband was like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” DRINK THIS CHAMPAGNE AND CELEBRATE, DAMN IT!!!” And so I did.

But this week, it’s back to the page, and back to that novel, for now. I feel confident that this revision may be the one to tie up all those lingering loose ends, that it might be good enough to land an agent (my new agent reps children’s fiction, so I’d need another to rep any adult work), and maybe even get a publisher. But, I must confess. As I’m working on novel revisions, my brain keeps filling with picture book ideas, so much so that I eventually just kept a file open on my computer so I could quickly switch back and forth.

I love my novel. I love writing essays. But this recent development has opened up a whole new, but certainly related, career path, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve got no shortage of “things I’m thinking about” but now I feel much more empowered to put those things into whatever written form will best serve the idea. Some ideas are more suited to adults, some to children. My options have increased, and that’s a very good thing.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

What To Do When Your Book Is On Submission

My picture book is on submission! What does that mean? Well, this is the phase when you’ve signed with a super duper agent (see previous post), you’ve made any edits to your manuscript that the agent suggests and then the agent submits your book to a list of editors at various publishing houses who he thinks would be a great fit.

This is one of the many reasons why having a good agent is so important! Believe it or not, in the middle of the cornfield in which I live, I am not lunching with editors on a daily basis. I'm new to the publishing world and don't have contacts. My agent does. In fact, at many publishers, you cannot even submit a manuscript on your own. You have to do so through an agent. There are so many writers out there, agents only take on books they are pretty sure they can sell. This is why the word on the street is that it's harder to get an agent these days than it is to sell the book. 

My agent put together a nifty list of editors he thought would be perfect for my book and sent my manuscript to them. And now we wait.

Many things can happen during this time. All of them could say, “I hate it!” (unlikely, since the agent has done his homework). One, or more, editors could like it and make an offer (yay!). If numerous editors express an interest in bidding, then the book can go to auction. This doesn't happen a lot, but when it does, it's pretty awesome. 

There are several ways to do an auction, one being a traditional auction where the editors keep bidding higher and higher, in rounds, until there’s one left standing, at which point, the author takes that bid. There’s also something known as a "best bid blind auction" where everyone just puts their best offer out there from the start, not knowing what the other publishers are doing. The author isn’t forced to take the top offer. Maybe there’s an offer that came in lower, but the author just really feels like that editor/publisher would be great to work with. That’s a-okay!

Hey look! Hardwood!
Keep in mind that before an editor can even make an offer, he or she has to meet with others at the publishing house, make sure they agree that the book is one they must have, think about how it fits with other books they have coming out, discuss who might illustrate it (I’ve only written the text. You do NOT want to see my drawings!) Also before making an offer, an editor might want to talk to the author, to get a sense of where the author is coming from, and to convince the author that her or his publishing house is the best choice. This is also an opportunity for the author to find out if she “clicks” with a particular editor, since the two of them would be working closely together for many months on the book.

This can take weeks. And so, things to do while my book is on submission:

 (A) Pull up that yucky carpeting in the living room 

 (B) Brush the dog

 (C) Take many long walks

 (D) Work on another book

Well, I’m sure my agent would say D, but I'm thinking C, followed by B. (This dog isn't going to brush himself!)  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How I Got My Agent

This is the post I’ve been wanting to write for nearly a decade, the post where I tell you I am officially represented. Sounds very serious, doesn’t it? It is very serious. I have signed with literary agent Steven Malk at Writers House, and though it’s been a couple weeks now, I still wake up and think, oh, I had a wonderful dream that I signed with this incredible agent, and then I tell myself this is real! Normally, my dreams go the other way, with me falling off buildings, falling out of a car that’s falling off a cliff. So, this is a great new development!

I have many, many things to say about getting to this point and what happens next, too many to vacuum-pack into one post, but for now, I’d like to hold these two, at first-glance contradictory, opinions up to the light.

1)  This was a long time coming.
2)  This happened seemingly overnight.

First, number one. I’ve been writing for years, dear readers, you know this. I started blogging (very occasionally) way back when I was writing my first novel and my daughter was still in diapers. (I just walked that daughter to school where she’s now in the 4th grade.) I’d been publishing short fiction for years and started to regret that I’d given it up to try a novel. That novel almost broke me, not the writing of it, which was very hard, but still enjoyable, but the trying to get it published part. It wasn’t that no one liked it. It was that lots of people liked it, but didn’t love it. (To those of you in the querying trenches, you’ll recognize this as a common phrase on rejection letters.) Sometimes I think it would have been better if they’d all hated it because I would have set it aside much sooner. Instead, I kept thinking the next query was going to change everything.

And I did get the attention of an agent who had a good track record. She wanted to see a few changes before she signed me. No biggie, right? Except that the little changes were actually kind of big, and after I’d work on one thing then another, I was met with long periods of silence, then apologetic messages, all without a contract. I was so naïve and, yes, desperate, that I just hung on and hoped. This sounds like a bad romance, and in many ways it was. We met in person and there were warning bells going off in my head the whole time. I knew we were not a good match, but I did not trust my instincts, and so when she eventually said, “It’s not you, it’s me,” I was not only devastated, thinking my book would never get out there, but also hating myself for being so stupid.

I entered a period of curling under the covers and wailing “I will never write again!” And that book? It never got out there, and that’s okay.

I took a new approach. I decided if I love writing (I do) and if I’m only really happy when I’m writing (I am), then I just need to write and not care so much about the business end of things. Agents, and editors and publishers, are going to do what they’re going to do. They will either want my work or they won’t. All I can do, all I can promise, to anyone, but mainly to myself, is that I’ll keep writing and trying to improve. And when I’ve got something I think is pretty good (whether that’s my new novel, an essay, a short story, a picture book), I will put myself out there, but I will not beat myself up when rejections come in. I will work hard so that when opportunity comes knocking, I will be prepared.

Giving up on that first book was the hardest writing-related thing I’ve ever done, but also the best thing. My second novel knocks the socks off that first one. And I’ve written, and published so many other things because I’m writing whatever makes me happy. I’ve taken to writing essays when I really need to deal with something that happened to me. If they get published, great, and many of them have, but it’s the act of writing them that I find liberating. I’ve written humor pieces and also (newsflash!) picture books!

It was inevitable, really. Though my kids, at 7 and 9, have largely moved on to chapter books, our home is still filled with picture books. We still bring home a few on every library trip. The ones we love, we read again and again. I volunteer to read with kids at the elementary school. I co-chair the book fairs. There have always been times when I’ve come across a really great picture book and thought, wow, I would love to be able to write something this good! And other times when I thought, well, I’m sure I could write something this good! And over the years, every time I had an idea for a picture book, I added it to my “big file of picture book ideas” on my computer. Which brings me to #2.

It feels like I signed with Steve in an instant because we were really only in communication with each other for a few weeks prior. I should mention that Steve is a children’s book agent, representing everything from picture books on up to YA. When I emailed my book, titled “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse,” to Steve along with my query letter, I literally chuckled as I hit “Send.” Steve is one of the top children’s book agents in the country. Look up all the best-sellers, all the Newbery and Caldecott winners, then look up their agents. Time and again, I found it was Steve. And here I was, brand new to children’s writing, sending my query cold, into the so-called “slush pile” to be read, I figured by an intern who might, if she even felt like it, send me a form rejection back.

When I got a very quick reply back, I was expecting the typical “Sorry this isn’t right for me…” letter. But instead, Steve wanted to know what else I was working on. And he liked the book, very much. We emailed back and forth for a few weeks until we had THE CALL, which is a very important chapter in the fairy book tale of getting an agent. Unlike my meeting with that agent many years ago, this time, I knew it was right. We clicked. Everything he was saying made sense to me and let me know that if Steve was my agent, I’d be in excellent hands. When I got off the phone, I sobbed. My husband cried. The kids were freaked out, not really understanding the concept of “happy tears.”

Lots of writers complain about the “slush pile” or say the publishing industry is rigged against those who don’t know the right people. When I was in my deepest denial about my first novel, I often said the same thing. It was easier than admitting the truth, that maybe my book just wasn’t good enough.

My experience these past weeks has taught me that the only thing that really matters is that you keep trying to write something great, and keep aiming high. If your dream agent seems to land in your lap, it’s because you did everything right to bring him there. And also, who knows, maybe there was a bit of luck involved. Maybe Steve read my manuscript right after eating something delicious or watching a YouTube video of kittens. Whatever the case, I am so grateful and pleased to be starting this exciting new chapter of my writing life.

And now before I start quoting Journey (Don’t Stop Believin’!), I need to sign off. There is MUCH more to come on this story. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Art

So sorry I’ve been missing from this blog all summer. I’ve been busy--hanging out with my kids, attending a lengthy writing conference (more on that later), oh, and building a playground! Cool pics of that here

The kids are returning to school next week, and so I plan to return to my *weekly posts. In the meantime, here’s a fun project I did today, which involves BOTH of the topics of this blog—books and DIY home projects.

A long time ago, I saw some collages made from old newspapers in a fancy decorating catalog. They cost hundreds of dollars. I muttered “I could do that,” and since my husband heard me and replied, as he is wont to do, “Why don’t you, then?” I made this dress.
It’s cut from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was a book I returned to again and again as an adolescent, and “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” which was a book I bought for myself in college when I decided I really wanted to be a writer.

The dress has been hanging for awhile now on our bedroom wall, on my side of the bed, and I had been meaning to make a collage for my husband’s side as well. These things are very simple to make and would be a fun project to do with kids (though at the time I made this, my kids were getting their last precious minutes of Minecraft in before school starts so they refused to assist).

You can Google coloring pages to find artwork if you aren't good at freehand drawing (like me). Then, just print the picture out, resizing on the copier if needed. Cut it into pieces as you see fit. Trace the pieces on pages of a book, cut and reassemble on your background. I used a plain canvas, but this could be fun to put on top of a tag sale painting or something, wouldn’t it? I used Mod Podge to attach my pieces, and put a coat of Mod Podge over the entire thing afterwards.

The hubs is a herpetologist (hence the frog) who teaches, among other subjects, evolutionary biology (hence the Darwin, under the frog's eye). Now we have a matching piece for his side of the bed! 


Friday, May 27, 2016

Mommy's Building a Playground: Adventures in Fundraising

Today, I watched a construction company begin the demolition at our elementary school playground, to make way for the Cornerstone PlayLab, which is an ADA accessible outdoor play and learning environment for pre-K to 4th graders, including those with special needs, at our neighborhood public elementary school. I've written previously about our successful fundraising campaign here.
So many people have provided encouragement along the way, and I want to say thank you, to all those who donated time and money or just gave a pat on the back when it was sorely needed. I have always volunteered in small ways, but I have never been part of such a large-scale, multi-year project. I had never done any fundraising before this project. Without the encouragement of so many friends, acquaintances and strangers, I probably would have given up on it. 
Let's do this!
And I also wanted to thank the haters, to all those who said it wouldn’t happen, to the one who said it wouldn’t be built in her lifetime, to the one who said we couldn’t hope to raise the money, to the one who said he’d make damn sure we didn’t, to the one who thought it was a good idea, but not for this state/town/public school/kids like these, to the one who said the very idea of it was against the better interest of the entire community…thank you...because each time one of these negative encounters occurred, we were motivated to raise even more money, to build something even better. I'd guess, by my rough estimation, each of these fine individuals helped to indirectly raise a quarter of our total.
My husband recently asked me what I've learned through all of this. I started writing it down, and it became a long list. Here ‘tis:

Only say “yes” to projects you are completely passionate about.
Your community is full of amazing people you haven’t met. Expand your circle.
While expanding your circle, realize you may not agree on everything, but if you agree on the project, that’s what matters.
The amount of people out there who are good-hearted and generous vastly outnumbers the people who aren’t.
For every 100 people, 99 of them will love ice-cream and one will not. There is no explaining this. Stop trying to get that one person to love ice-cream!
You have no time for the constant complainers and whiners. You have important work to do. Buh-bye.
If there is a nugget of truth to the complaints and whines, you must examine it and think of a solution.
If you can imagine it, it might just be possible to do it. Dream big.
No one wants to support a C-level project. Design the most ambitious thing you can think of, your A-project, your dream project, and others will see your excitement.
Take the proper time to lay the groundwork for a campaign’s success. It’s much easier to get a donation from someone who is already familiar with, and loves, the project. PR is everything.
You might get to your target goal faster with a half dozen major donors, but it’s much more meaningful if you get there with a few bigger donors and lots and lots and lots of smaller ones.
It takes time to meet with people and explain your project, but the details can be just as important to the $10 donor as the $10,000 one. Ownership is everything. Let everyone feel a part of it.
Anyone who would attempt to de-rail a worthwhile project such as this has problems that probably have nothing to do with you or the project. Try not to take it personally.
If someone feels the need to de-rail, it means the project is gaining momentum. Keep going.
You can never thank the people who helped you too many times.
Don’t expect to be thanked yourself, but take a moment to enjoy it when it happens.
Remember who you’re doing this for.
Recognize and be grateful for what the project has done for you (community service brings greater personal happiness).
Listen and learn from all the people who have done this type of thing many times before you.
Don’t be afraid to speak up when you think the advice of those people might be wrong.
When in doubt, ask the lawyer. Always, get it in writing.
Build a strong enough team so that any one person can take a mental health day (or week), and the project won’t fall apart.
Some people take longer to see the light. If/when they do, try not to hold a grudge.
Someday, probably soon, you’re going to look back on this hard work and miss it.
You’ll not have a chance to do this particular project again. Make it spectacular.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sparking Joy, in The Closet

There’s been a lot of organizing talk on the old Internet lately, both fawning and less-so, regarding the bestselling book, “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. I have not read it. I’ve never picked up a book on organizing because I feel like I was hardwired to do it, no instruction manual needed. 

Nothing makes me happier than an area that is both beautiful, and functional, a place for everything and everything in its place. And yes, I realize this type of behavior can make others crazy, and can make me loony bins myself if I take it too far, so I regularly allow myself to create messes, and live with them, as practice for being a normal person.

Speaking of messes, take a look at this before shot of my closet. Does this look like the closet of an organized person? I never meant for it to get this out of hand. It's just that I’d been throwing stuff in there as I worked on re-doing our bedroom, and once stuff gets thrown somewhere, it’s oh-so-easy to throw more on top of it, in a grand mess-begetting-a-mess-begetting-a-mess, until you can’t see the floor. This is a closet where a person might hide behind the clothes eating Hostess Twinkies under the dim light of the bare bulb (not that I’ve ever done that). In a word, this closet is scary.

Once my bedroom was re-done, I decided the closet needed major help. So, what did I do first, in my attempt to create an organized, beautiful closet? Friends, I took off the door. No door meant that when I woke up every morning, my face positioned such that I was looking directly at the closet, I felt terrible. This is tough love, people. I basically shamed myself into a closet re-do.

Once the door was off, I cleared everything out, repeating to husband and children one of my favorite mantras of organizing: "it's going to get worse before it gets better." I handled every item and decided its fate: "Keep" or "Donate." Marie Kondo tells readers to consider whether an item "sparks joy." My rules weren’t quite so esoteric. They were:

1. Do I like it?
2. Does it fit me right now (not would it fit me if I lost ten pounds?)

Simple enough, right? I gave away six garbage bags full of clothes. Then, having whittled my options down considerably, I painted the room--ceiling and walls in a light tan, and fresh white trim. I got a pretty, vintage-looking glass globe to cover that bare bulb. I replaced one short hanging rod with a very cool antique cabinet containing many shelves for folded items and baskets of small things. I replaced some ill-fitting metal shelving units with two rods (a shorter one beneath holds skirts and pants) on the other wall. The shelf, I painted and kept.

Here’s a tip for those folded sweaters. I know from experience that no matter how neatly I stack things on a shelf, they will eventually tumble over. You really need a divider, but bonafide closet shelf dividers are crazy expensive (try upwards of $40 for two). They are basically pieces of metal. You know what else is metal and heavy and keeps things in place? Bookends. I bought two pairs from Staples at $8 each. They work great.

There’s a hanging shoe pouch in the back for the heels I rarely wear (there’s just not much call for formal wear for work-from-home writers). An IKEA step stool tucked under the clothes helps me reach the top shelf. A cordless shade from Lowes and faux fur IKEA rug add a nice touch. The only thing missing from this closet re-do is some new clothes! And I will say this, my new closet definitely sparks some joy.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Filling the Well

“Filling the Well” is a phrase I first encountered many years ago in Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” It’s a concept for writers that's quite simple to grasp, harder to accomplish. It simply refers to having new experiences, getting out into the world, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting new things so that you can write about them.

It’s a great thing to do in that down-time after finishing a major project, oh, like say my novel, “Happy, Indiana.” Of course, another great thing to do in that downtime is a whole lot more writing. I wrote a picture book and I’m working on a trillion essay ideas because I’ve learned you have to constantly keep writing, otherwise, a rejection comes in, and you crawl back into bed, when what you really want to happen is--the rejection comes in and you’re all nonchalant, like oh, what are you even talking about, agent/editor person? That old project? Why, fiddle dee dee, I’ve almost completely forgotten about that because you see, I am so very, very busy with so many very exciting projects and prospects…
Selfie finishing the novel in my footie pjs.

But back to filling that well. Now, good writers read, a lot, and so new ideas are always coming in to the old brain that way, but there’s really no substitute for experiencing things first-hand. It doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. The last time I taught a creative writing class, I had my students seek out a new experience, and one of the young men went to a local yarn store (now, sadly, defunct) and explored around and struck up a conversation with the proprietress about various types of yarn and had a grand old time and, who knows, may feature some kind of crochet loving character in his next story.

In other words, we don’t have to spring for air fare to another country to fill the well. But, we do need to get off the couch/out of our writing closet. And this is hard for a lot of us, myself included. We like being alone in our closets with our words and our ideas, but the problem is, if we don’t get off our tushies, we develop flat tushies and, more importantly, run the risk of writing about writers, of writing scenes with characters in coffeehouses, of writing characters who spend a lot of time staring out windows (fyi—I had too many “She stared out the window…” lines in my novel and had to cut them back.) We’re generally a boring people, writers. Just boring people with outsized imaginations. But, like all monsters, imaginations have to be fed or they will turn on us.

So if you see a pasty looking misfit on the edge of your meeting on city zoning ordinances, it’s just a writer filling the well. If you see a weirdo at your craft fair booth rubbing the mosaic turtle you made, it’s just a writer trying to add to her sensory experiences. Just nod, back away slowly, and know you might be providing her the spark she needs for her next, great writing project.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Agent Querying in 12 Easy Steps

So, the agent querying process…it’s not fun. It’s full of both maniacally happy peaks and soul crushing valleys, often on the same day. I would rather do anything else. I would certainly much rather be writing. This is the main reason writers work so hard to get an agent. So they can focus on the work and leave the business deals to someone better equipped to handle them. The only thing worse than querying is being asked for the 10th time in a month, “You finished your novel? When will it be in stores?” I think this might be a new blog series: “Questions you are asking the writer in your life that secretly enrage her though you don’t even know it and you meant well.”

But, I digress. The wonderful news is that I wrote a little humor piece to get me through querying, AND it was published in the incredibly wonderful Electric Literature. I hope it might make other writers smile. I’ll admit I wrote it after reading some especially rude instructions, directed toward writers, on a few agent websites. Not as cheeky as my faux guidelines, of course, but then my piece just takes it to the next, logical level.

And before you start saying, oh, but surely there are rude writers out there, I’ll agree, yes! There are plenty of them who don’t follow the instructions, who call agents explaining they are the next Hemingway, who probably show up at offices unannounced, with cookies and query in hand, who send flaming rebuttals to rejections. All no-no’s, and writers who are professional and want to stay in this business don’t do such things, and agents who are professionals don’t perform large-scale, public put-downs of writers because without them, uh, there’s no work to represent.

It’s gotten so crazily competitive I’ve seen writers literally begging, in the comments section of agent blogs no less, to be noticed. And I’ll admit, with my first, never-published novel, I went down that shame spiral myself, not to the point of begging, but certainly to the point of feeling very anxious and worried that my writing career was dependent on whatever happened after I hit send on my next query.
I came out of it by focusing on my work. It’s all you can do in the end. You can’t control markets. You can write the best stuff you can and try to improve a bit each day. In fact, I have an essay about my different writing approach to my two books forthcoming in Salon (Salon, y’all!). Focus on the work.

But of course, because I’m still me, I started worrying that potential agents would see this piece in Electric Lit and scratch a little note in their mental rolodex saying Warning: Problem Client. But when I expressed this fear to the EL editor, she reminded me that any agent who couldn’t laugh at this is not someone I want a potentially lifelong relationship with. Of course, she’s right.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Word Girl

Marking the entrance to my closet office:

Now, if only I had a monkey sidekick...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Resale Value

I’m kind of a real estate junkie. I get it from my parents who used to load me into the car for long Sunday drives when I was a kid. We’d drive out different rural roads or into little subdivisions, pointing out this or that feature in a house we really liked—an especially nice bay window, or Curb Appeal-worthy front garden. It was sad, though, too, because my mom was always looking for something else, something better (my dad just liked driving around aimlessly with the windows rolled down).

And this is where I break from my mom in terms of a love of real estate. I enjoy snooping around other homes out of curiosity, but I love my own. I love my neighborhood. I’m not going anywhere. And this is where we get to the concept of “resale value.” If you’re someone who’s planning to pick up stakes pretty soon, then the “experts” will tell you not to do anything drastic to your house. Only spend money on renovations that will dramatically increase your resale value (for example, kitchen remodels are worth it; bedrooms, not so much). And for God’s sake, keep your walls beige!

Now, this advice makes sense if you know you’re not going to live in a place very long. But what gets me is when people buy a house and live in it, for decades, and don’t make any of the changes they'd really like to make because they’re envisioning some potential buyer turning up their nose at those changes in some future time that may never exist. It's this conversation:

Me: It's nice that you put that huge basement into your new house. You could really use the space when people come to visit.

Other Person: Oh yeah, it would be really handy. It's all set to put a bathroom in down there and everything.

Me: So when are you finishing it?

Other Person: Oh, I don't think we will. Maybe someone who buys the house someday might want it to be something else.

Me: You just built this house. Are you planning to leave?

Other Person: Oh, no, we're never leaving this house. 

Me: ???????
Lime Green in the living room is not good for resale.
Also, check out the style mixing--the Art Deco mantle
(original to the house), plus the Craftsman sconces
I had installed, and the Victorian mirror? Big no-nos.

The first room I re-did in our house was the living room. Knowing I’d be spending a lot of time in there with the kids, I painted it my favorite color, lime green. Shortly afterwards, I hosted a book club and one of my friends exclaimed, “Boy, I’ll bet you can’t wait to paint over that horrible color!!!”

Yes, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It would probably discourage a potential buyer, but I’m not selling! I want to enjoy every minute of this house and that means making every room as wacky as I want to. I won’t get into the whole dance like nobody’s watching mantra, since you can buy that on a T-shirt, but honestly, if a bright purple front door (I did that, too) makes you smile when you pull up your driveway, do it.

Also, here it comes, the obligatory writing reference—it certainly makes sense to write whatever you want, too, markets be damned. Writing is too hard and the rewards so infrequent, it just doesn’t make any sense to pen something you’re not passionate about. While you're at it, paint your office, your closet, wherever you write, in a color that absolutely inspires you, even if everyone else hates it. They can close their eyes when they visit.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Essays and the Right to Write

This morning, I read some essays. I’m starting on a new one of my own and always find it useful to get my mind into that rhythm. Primarily, I'm reading through the work of one author who has written about relationships with children and spouses and friends and family, common fodder for the personal essay genre and similar to many of the topics I’ve written about. They were beautifully done; they made me think, about my own life and how my own views might match or diverge from the author’s. I was glad to have read them.

But then I made the mistake of clicking through to the comments and was so immediately offended, on behalf of the author and essay writers everywhere. Of course there were all the expected comments about how she shouldn’t have done/said/thought what she did. Some of these were fairly benign. And then there were the especially mean ones. For example, the person who lives in the same huge city as the author hoped he never meets her. Nice. I had a similar comment on one of my essays once, someone instead saying she was glad she lived far away from me… Thank you, and Ditto!

I’ve written on this topic of online trolling before, two years ago, when I made a resolution to write what I want, critics be damned. I’ve published several essays since then and don’t plan to stop (I have one in the editing stage with a major publication, stay tuned!). Back then, I decided I would no longer read online comments on my work, and I'm pleased to say I've kept that promise.

I’ve learned that no matter what the ratio is, of positive to negative, I’ll only fixate on the hate-filled comments, the kind words quickly forgotten. (There were a lot of kind words on her essays, too, but you see, I’ve already forgotten them.) Reading the negative comments to her essays brought on flashbacks to my own, a kind of PTSD, which was not fun.

So, new resolution: not only will I NOT read comments to my own essays posted online, but I won’t read comments on anyone else’s work either. Are we clear? Excellent. (Note to dear readers of this blog, this does not apply to comments from you; I always read those.)

But, before I sign off, I have to say there’s another thing that’s bothering me: So many of the comments I read today dealt with what I can only call the author’s basic right to have an opinion. Some commentors didn’t like that she seemed to be doing okay economically. That she lived in the suburbs. Had children. Etcetera and so on and so on. The basic thread was…how dare you even write about any problem you might have when you are xyz and know nothing about xyz. (Note: she wasn't writing about the problems experienced by any other group or individual, only her own.)

I’m seeing more and more of this, and as a writer I find it disturbing. In personal essay, the writer is talking about herself and, hopefully, making some larger connection to the world around her. She is not appropriating someone else's identify (in fiction, however, all bets are off). But in the comments there's a piling on of grievances, each one claiming to have more right to speak because more bad things happened to him/her. And sometimes I see essay writers laying out a list of woes before they even get into the meat of the essay, as though they need to make a case so they can get permission to write…from whom? The universe? Or just some especially angry, anonymous commentators, whose writing, by the way, seems limited to online comments?

Listen, before I get all worked up on this gorgeous, snowy morning, let me just say I’m going to keep writing what I feel like writing if it’s okay with you. If it’s not okay with you, I’m still going to do it. And if commentors have a problem with an author’s demographic profile, they should look at that before they read the author’s work, and not waste time with them and we can all build our little silo and fill it with people exactly like us who write exactly what we already think and then we can write in the comments that even though the author has a point, she is still fat/ugly/has bad hair and then we can all turn off our Internets forever, the end.

I'm going sledding.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Not the Party I Was Planning

Dear readers, I must confess something: I’ve been moonlighting, stepping out of my writing closet to work on something much bigger than my novel, bigger than any of my writing projects.

I’m building a playground.

Let me take a step back. My two kids attend a public elementary school with a woefully inadequate playground. I’m involved in the school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO). When teachers approached the PTO for help with the playground, a friend of mine stepped forward to investigate things. Soon, I and another friend, hopped on board. That was 2 ½ years ago (or, according to a misprint in a recent article, 212 years ago…and sometimes it feels like that).

I’m not going to give you all the details of this project, but suffice it to say, it has turned into a huge undertaking involving committees and proposals and construction drawings, and wine, and crying and laughing, and throwing things, and embracing, and more wine, eventually resulting in the plan for an outdoor learning and play environment like no other. If you really want to know more, we have a website for that: www.CornerstonePlayLab.org.

What I want to talk about is the party we had last week, because it was an incredible party. We were
People talking and laughing and eating cheese
celebrating the successful fundraising campaign ($600K, almost entirely from our town of under 30,000 people) and the imminent construction of the PlayLab this summer. It was a party I’d been anticipating for a long time, almost since I first became involved. This is what we call putting the cart before the horse. Guilty, sorry. There’s precedent for this in my life. I’ve done the same thing with my novel.

You see, at random moments while writing, I would sometimes imagine the epic bash I would throw when it gets published. I even started a guest list (Are you on it? There’s still time.). It was an incredibly pointless way to waste writing minutes, but it was fun. I may just dig out the list today and add a few names, because I’ve met an awful lot of new people during my volunteer work on this project. 

Me listening carefully to our
speaker and also wondering if there's
any Havarti left.
Writing is lonely, folks, especially when you live where I do with few other writers around. When my youngest started school, I planned to throw myself into my work full-time. I found this was not possible. I quickly learned I didn't want to live inside my own head for seven or eight hours a day.

This project gave me something to be passionate about, entirely outside my writing work. It gave me a community of like-minded people focused around a goal. And there was intrigue, mayhem, double-crossing (sometimes it was a damn Parks and Rec episode). I know, you may be thinking, it’s a playground, but then you may not know small-town politics like I do, or like I do, now. And I also know about fall zones and pea gravel and site drainage and all sorts of things I may never need to know again once this project is done, but who can say? Maybe I’ll write about it. Odds are good.

This blog is about creativity, and thus far, most of my posts have been about writing, and sometimes painting random bits of cast-off furniture, but there are so many ways we’re all creative in our everyday lives, figuring out how to work together, coming up with solutions, even when the solution involves something as seemingly unimportant as the width of a slide. It’s important to someone. It’s important to many someones in the case of our playground.

I’ve been mentally planning a book launch party for a lot of years, way before “Happy, Indiana,” way before the book I wrote previously (which was cast into the proverbial drawer). But this PlayLab party was everything I could have hoped for and reminded me there are so many more ways to be successful, way beyond my narrow, writerly focused ideas of success. 

And you know what else? Helping other people makes you happy. I’ve read stacks of research on happiness for my novel, and I can tell you the findings there are quite clear. So, more helping people! More parties! More wine and cheese!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Starting Early...on a Love of Books

There was a minor Book Club kerfuffle in our house this morning, not with my book club of 12 years, but with my kid’s. It seems their elementary school has instituted an after-school book club, divided by grade, meeting once per week (an awesome idea!).

My 1st grade son got an “invitation” to join the club in his take-home folder yesterday. My 3rd grade daughter did not. Oh, the humanity!!! The letter made clear that kids were selected by their homeroom teachers to participate, and then it's up to them whether or not they wish to do so. When I asked my son, he gave a casual shoulder shrug. “Sure,” he said. (He’s been cultivating a cool-kid image that means he can’t get overly excited about most things, though he loves to read just as much as his sister.)

Meanwhile, his sister was beside herself wondering why, oh why, she didn’t get an invitation. Does she not read books for hours each day? Does she not talk incessantly about books (and many other things) to the point of wearing out her poor mother’s eardrums?

An email inquiry revealed all: her invitation is in tonight’s take-home folder. Crisis averted.

Now as I sit in this quiet house, getting ready to work on revisions to my novel, I’m feeling very warm and fuzzy, thinking about that passion erupting, all over the opportunity to talk about books. I don’t think our kids’ love of all things literary is an accident. My husband and I both love to read. There are books on every flat surface of our house. Given a moment of downtime, we usually have one in our hands. When the kids want us to read to them, the answer is yes. (When they were in the womb, I'd often read aloud, not kids books, just anything. I thought they might be lonely in there;) When they want to buy books, the answer is almost always yes.

Yet neither my husband nor I came from bookish families. Aside from a set of encyclopedias, there were less than a dozen books in my entire childhood home. They sat on a shelf next to our fireplace, and I can still picture their spines, if not their titles. One was a nonfiction book about Canadian Geese. One was a 1950s era book for women on dieting and beauty. There was a farming memoir, and a 1970s book of Guinness World records. I recently found the Guinness book in my parents’ basement and brought it home. I recognized nearly every picture, though I hadn’t looked through it in 30 years. It’s just that, as a kid, I'd looked through it so often, having few other options.
This is our living room coffee table/library cart my dad made
out of a wooden electrical cable spool. He added dowels
and casters, and I gave it a shabby-chic paint job.

Fast forward to last week, when I had to sit my daughter down and explain that she was bringing too many books home. Able to select from a wide variety in her classroom, she was lugging home way more than she could read in a week, or even a month, and her backpack was crazy heavy. I suggested she stick to two or three at a time, but she wasn’t able to choose. 

“I love all of them!” she wailed. What could I say? I know, I know… 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Asking for Help, or, How I Quit Being an Idiot

I’ve just printed out some notes on my recently “completed” novel, “Happy, Indiana,” and am getting ready to dive into some “light” revisions. I say “completed” because this thing is really not going to be done until it’s published. I say “light” because the changes I’m making are minor compared to the multiple, major, revisions this book has gone through in the past year or two.

I’m actually quite excited about working on the book again. I had set it aside for a few months, having taken it as far as I could at the time. But last month, I reached out to a fellow writer, a woman I’d met eons ago at a conference and re-connected with online, to see if she’d be willing to read the book. Not only was she willing to do that, but she also organized us, with the addition of another writer friend of hers, into a weekly critique group. And so I’m sitting down with their notes on my opening chapters, and I’m so, so grateful to have their insight.

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked.

The focus groups I held over the summer with an earlier draft? All I had to do was ask. Now, sometimes people say, “No,” but my experience has been that the majority of people will help you, if you ask politely, and maybe offer them lunch.

Duh, you’re thinking, you’re just figuring this out? Yes. I am. I’m a slow learner, in this arena anyway.

I didn’t show my first (eventually shelved) novel to hardly anyone. I was…scared? Of what they’d think of my subject matter, or my skill as a writer? I was scared they would say the book needed a lot of work and that would throw me into despair, and I’d just give up? Or scared they’d say it was wonderful and then I’d have to curse the world in general for not agreeing? I was scared they’d say, “No?”

I used to have a job in public relations, where it took an entire team to get a two-page press release out into the world. I may have been the primary writer, but there were notes initially about what the focus of the release should be. Then, after I drafted it, there were multiple levels of review and revision, both internally within the agency, and externally with the client. There was strategizing about timing and placement. And by that point, we’d look at it again, and make more revisions, or find the typo that managed to pass a half dozen sets of eyes.

Yet I somehow thought I was going to figure out, for the first time, how to write a killer 300-page novel all on my own? I think it was pride, too, not just fear, that made me think this. The feeling that I had a graduate degree and experience and publishing credits, and I should be able to do this novel-writing thing.

With the writing of “Happy, Indiana,” I finally believe I’ve been able to toss off this image of the lonely, struggling artist. Okay, yes, I write in a closet, but the door is open, there’s a window on the world (or at least my street) and I exit it frequently to talk with friends and fellow writers. It feels good to have a community.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Turn, Turn, Turn

There’s gorgeous, fluffy snow covering everything this morning. The kids hurried through breakfast so they’d have time to play in it before walking to school. My husband (who actually enjoys shoveling, go figure) happily donned his trapper’s hat and set to work on the driveway.

I’m smiling as I write, and thinking, “Well, it’s about damn time.” It’s January 12, after all, and this is the first serious snow we’ve had (I live near Cleveland). It just feels wrong. When neighbors exclaimed on Christmas Day, “Isn’t this nice? It’s so warm!” I could barely hear them over the grinding of my teeth.

No. No, no, no. We go sledding over Christmas Break. That’s what we’re supposed to do. There’s a season for all these things that we do, and the weather is messing with it. I feel the urge to break into that song by The Byrds, but first let me explain that the restless feeling in our house brought on by the lack of snow has been matched these last few weeks by a restlessness in my writing closet.

I finished a novel in the fall, then immediately set about writing both an essay and a picture book that I’d been wanting to write for a long time. Those are done now, too. And though I have computer files of “ideas” and scraps of things, there’s nothing that has a big neon sign pointing to it that says “Do this next.”

I’m finding that there are seasons to book writing, and I’m back in the idea generation season, the time when I just let myself read widely and wildly, go places, explore and decide what I want to write my next book about (because I’ve decided, as challenging as it is, novel-writing is a challenge I want to keep pursuing).

It should be a marvelous season, one in which I wake up every day and realize how lucky I am, and I do, sort of…but…I’m really only happy when I’m actively writing.

So, I’m making a decision, right now as I type this, that there can be no black and white “seasons” to writing, or at least, the seasons have to overlap. The warm air may come in next week and melt all this snow, only to throw us back into some freaky ice storm the week after. And I’ve got to keep my writing seasons jumbled as well.

I need different projects all the time, in different stages. I may need to schedule time to read those novels I have stacked by the bed, books that will get me excited and generate new ideas. But I also need to schedule work on a new essay, to try my hand once again at short stories (it’s been awhile…), to dabble at whatever pops into my head, but to definitely have a goal, to put words on a page, every day. If I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll just give up and go sledding…

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Living (and Writing) Dangerously in the New Year

I’ve just read a wonderful essay by Tom Spanbauer titled “Dangerous Writing” in Poets & Writers. It’s a fitting piece to contemplate as I sit here on this early January morning, the kids packed off to school after a long break, the Christmas tree looking sad in the corner in its nest of fallen needles.

When Spanbauer talks about dangerous writing, he doesn’t mean scenes of murder and mayhem, but rather, being the kind of writer who goes to the dangerous places in his or her own mind. He’s talking about digging really deep, writing with passion, writing what scares you. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be. But this is the kind of writing that gets to some real truths and sticks in readers’ minds long after they finish.

Personally, I’ve been doing more and more of this. I used to be very tentative, worrying about what people might think of my work, and, consequently, my writing at that time was fine…but nothing more. It skimmed the surface. I don’t write like that anymore. Maybe I’ve just gotten too old to care what people think, but I know I’ve also gotten too old to want to waste any time writing something I’m not passionate about.

A few weeks ago, I took an impromptu trip to Mexico where I met up with some girlfriends. This is very unlike me, very outside my comfort zone, traveling alone to an unfamiliar place where I don’t even speak the language outside of : "¿Donde está el baño?" The vacation was wonderful, but the traveling part, both ends of it, were full of anxious moments.

At one point, waiting for the agents to search my luggage, I watched all the other travelers speed on by, and envied them for their sure-footedness. They seemed to be taking everything in stride. They didn’t look stressed out at all. I had a little pity-party in my head, lamenting how I couldn't be all zen, like I was at the yoga class my friends and I took on the beach.

But then I had a sudden realization. The people who are stressed by this type of thing? They aren’t here. They’re not at this airport. I’m not seeing all the people who are anxious like me, because they all stayed home.

And so, too, with writing. Oh, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “I’d like to write a book, too.” But they didn’t. They aren’t. I traveled in 2015. I wrote a novel (and a picture book and several essays and put my collection of short fiction together), all of which required some mental traveling to dangerous places. I’d do it all again. I’m passionate about my work, and plan to stay that way, in 2016, and always.