Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cross-eyed Web Research Delays Butt-In-Chair Time

I should be deep into revisions on KM. Instead, my BIC time's on hold until I finish surfing the web for info about the use of service dogs at school.

My mission: to build a portfolio of resource materials on the subject, including the benefits of service dogs at school, a copy of the federal law protecting such, and a sample letter to send home to parents prior to the dog's arrival.

My goal: to use this info to "educate" the Powers that Be at my daughter's school.

By rights, the school should conduct its own research, proactively seeking the info it needs in order to get comfortable with the idea of Jewel attending school with E next fall. Unfortunately, during the 10-plus years P & I have worked with this school system on special ed issues, we've learned not to expect proactive posturing in E's favor.

On deck: Creation of a new file about service dogs. (Good background for my muse to ponder behind my back for possible use in future projects.) And re-visions to KM this afternoon (after I complete enough research to convince my muse I'll be able to work without distraction.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Enjoy the Carnival, Explore the Forest

Attention lovers of all things kid lit! The May Carnival of Children's Literature has rolled into Here in the Bonny Glen. And the latest Edge of the Forest online children's literature magazine beckons with book reviews, author interviews, kids picks, and more. Surf on over and bookmark each so you know where to find your daily kid-lit fix.

Show, Don't Tell--Taking the Lead From the Grand Pooh-bah of Writing Rules

On Friday, P and I met with E's school to discuss her individualized learning goals for next year. Since a key agenda item was a discussion about the arrival of E's service dog Jewel next fall, we brought the dog.

Administrators at the table looked less than pleased when we arrived with the dog unannounced. But here's the thing. Since Jewel wears an official service dog vest, she had every right to be there. And assuring everyone that Jewel's an exemplary dog in the world of service dogs wasn't going to be as powerful a show as demonstrating her abilities first-hand, not with the principal, superintendent, and district attorney already anticipating parental concerns about dog bites, fatal allergic reactions, and you-name-the-scenario scenarios. So, I took the lead from what I believe is the grand pooh-bah of all writing rules--show, don't tell.

Jewel's trainer Jack had faith she'd do great during the meeting. I mentally crossed my fingers the whole time. And shouldn't have worried. Jewel was well-behaved the entire two-plus hours.

Now our hope is that administrators warm to the idea by August. And if they don't? Well, we might be in for an interesting battle because federal law protects Jewel's right to come to school with E.

How did Jack explain it at the meeting? In so many words, he quoted the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) after someone suggested that maybe E not need Jewel at school. Then he followed up with: Just as you wouldn't take a seeing eye dog away from its owner, you can't expect E to go through the day without Jewel.

The same person tried to argue the two situations couldn't be compared. "No," Jack said, shaking his head. "A service dog is a service dog. When Jewel and E come to school, they'll come as a team, and can't be separated." Boy, am I glad Jack came along with us for that ride.

We do a walk-through of the school in a couple weeks to recreate E's day with Jewel in mind, and discuss an accomodation plan for the classroom, lunch room, gym class, restroom, etc.

Edited to add: Here's hoping the walk-through is less contentious than the meeting.

Current read: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Thrilled it finally rose to the top of my pile.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Cinderella Stories, Six-figure Contracts, and the Hard Work of Writing

New writers don't want to hear about the hard work of writing. They want to hear: "This is your first draft? It's glorious, here's the contract, and how does a six-figure advance sound to you?"

Don't get me wrong. Cinderella stories can and do happen, but more often than not, they're the exception to the rule. And I suspect if you dig deeply enough, you'll find proof those "Cinderellas" practiced their craft for years before submitting their first story.

My point is this. Most serious writers spend months or more rewriting and revising their work before sending it out to potential editors. And in between, they practice the hard work of writing.

Case in point is KM, my work-in-progress. In an effort to discover the true heart of my story, I've written and rewritten this puppy so many times I've sprouted my first gray hairs in the process. But here's the thing: each time I start over, I come closer to writing the story through to its true end.

This is my process. It's one of fits and starts and redos. It's a process of discovery--one requiring patience and persistence as I explore a feeling, image or line of dialogue to learn what it means in the context of my greater story.

One day, I might fiddle with a scene for hours before producing a paragraph's worth of sentences or insights into my characters worth keeping. The next day, I might spend hours writing a decent follow-up scene. The day after that, I might spend twice as much time writing through a draft of a chapter only to set it aside at the end of the day because something wasn't working. The next morning, a bit of dialogue might come to me. Working and reworking it, still not satisfied with its direction, I might realize the chapter from the day before wasn't useless after all. What's needed is a revision, one that gives a hint of the conversation to come. And voila, I'm on a roll, moving forward again through my story.

Though new writers will likely find the realities of the creative process difficult to stomach, it's essential they fully appreciate it if they hope to be published. The truth is the story I hear most from editors is that the majority of manuscripts in their slush pile aren't publishable. The characters are wooden. Their actions aren't credible. The plotting is plodding. The pacing is off. The dialogue is stilted. The reasons go on and on. These reasons are why I practice butt in chair daily (BIC).

BIC reduces the number of blank-page days, bringing me closer to my story. The closer I am to my story, the more good writing days I have. The more good writing days, the sooner I'll craft a story worthy of catching an editor's eye.

In the end, what matters most is patience, persistence, faith in your process, and the hard work that must be done in order to earn the good days, and, if the timing is right and the story is ready, a contract.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jewel at School

Jewel visited my youngest daughter's classroom with E today. S was eager to answer her classmates' questions about what it's like to have a sister with a service dog. E was thrilled to leave school early to talk about Jewel.

Jewel was awesome. After giving E a boost into her chair, Jewel waited like a pro while we talked about service dogs, then gave a brief demonstration of what Jewel can do.

While the class ooohed and aahed, Jewel retrieved E's treat bag and eye glasses. She retrieved a student's fluorescent green mechanical pencil, too, even after we warned her it'd be slimed when she got it back. E also demonstrated how well Jewel listens by commanding her to stay, walking to the back of the classroom, and calling her to heel.

Before we visited, S's class read a story about a blind woman and her service dog. The class also completed extensive research online and in the school library about service dogs and their teams. They asked lots of great questions, so many that Mrs. R had to cut them off in the end.

Before we left, we removed Jewel's vest. All were eager to pet Jewel now that she was done working. Jewel seemed to love the attention, rolling over on her back and wacking her tail against the floor while everyone took a turn rubbing her belly.

One of many writing highs I took away from the event today: I see a definite picture book here based on todays' visit, post and title.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

May Frenzy and Muzzling My Inner Critic

May is a frenzied time of year in Chicago. It heralds spring rains and a return to twice-weekly lawn mowing. It also guarantees a month's worth of end-of-the-year school activities.

Concerts, recitals, and plays times three active girls mean lots less time at home. Less time at home means less butt-in-chair time. At least that's how my inner critic sees it.

I imagine my inner critic as a cross between a raven and a cobra. During high stress times and months like May, it takes up residence in my head. Eyes blazing, hood unfurled, it coils around its perch, flutters shredded wings, and notices we'll be eating off paper plates again if I don't get to the dishes. It cackles as I don my second-to-the-last pair of clean underwear. As I'm working on revisions to KM, it snickers at the weeds taking over the garden.

Why even bother? it coos. Why neglect these things for a "hobby?"

Why? Because writing is not a hobby, it's my life. It keeps me centered and sane, and it keeps you leashed.

On deck this week: Crit group meets tomorrow. The timing couldn't be better for muzzling this beast.

Current read: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray.

Appetite for writing: Eager to continue my write-through of KM.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why I Write Now

Some people write to make sense of a world gone wrong. Some write to tell themselves a story. Others write because the only way to silence the voices in their head is to give those characters a voice on the page.

I write for my three girls, especially my oldest daughter whose love for a good adventure rivals my own, who inspired me to give voice to the stories in my head, and who read so often as a little girl we were forced to give her the same rule my mother gave me: No reading at the dinner table.

Can hardly believe that little girl is all grown up. Here she is dressed to the nines for prom, and looking very much like a character from one of the books she read and reread as a little girl.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Jewel Surprises Us All

Since E's service-dog-in-training, Jewel, is staying with us a week at a time now, she accompanied E to Easter Seals yesterday. What a treat to watch the two of them learning together. As soon as the vest goes on, Jewel knows she's working. Suddenly, she's on, watchful, attentive, and, it seems, anticipating E's needs.

During yesterday's physical therapy session, for example, Jewel surprised us all by helping E in a way she'd not yet been trained. Ever since the aneurysm rupture, E has needed a cane for extra support while walking. Even with the cane, she's easily knocked off her feet if jostled or bumped. This is one of the main reasons for employing a service dog. Jewel will wear a special vest with a handle, allowing E to hold it rather than an adult's hand while navigating crowded hallways, and hopping into and out of chairs.

Anyway, yesterday at Easter Seals, E was working in front of a full-length mirror, fighting to keep her balance as the therapist instructed her to shift her weight back and forth. During this exercise, Jewel had been instructed to lay nearby until E was done. Jewel couldn't keep still. E must have fallen one time too many times, because Jewel suddenly commando crawled to the mat beneath E's feet, draping her belly over it as if offering E her back should she need it. This is one cool dog.

E's different, too, when Jewel puts on her vest. Good different. Walking into Easter Seals with Jewel at her side, E looked taller, and her normally soft voice sounded clear and assertive when giving Jewel instructions.

The best part of all: After a group of staffers came to ooh and aaah Jewel outside the PT room, E beamed, introduced Jewel, then announced that when she takes Jewel to school this Fall, she's going to tell everyone, "I have a service dog, and I'm not afraid to use it."

You go girl!

Current read: Micah by Laurell K. Hamilton. Dark fantasy by one of the best. A quick, racy read. Recommended for mature eyes only.

Appetite for writing: eager to continue revisions on KM after my Edge of the Forest submissions are done, and a bit frantic because one of my stories fell through.

Edited to add: All's good. Thanks to former classmates, M, D, and J, I have a line-up of librarians willing to be interviewed in coming issues about what's hot with their readers.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Spring Manuscript Clean-Up and Pruning

Deciding what to prune from the many versions of KM has been problematic at times, especially on those days (and sometimes even weeks) when life conspires to keep my butt out of the chair or my head out of the zone.

Thankfully, the latest chapter in E's health seems to be behind us, and we all seem to have entered a new sense of "normal." *Knocks on wood.* And though life still happens, the interruptions feel minor and manageable compared to E's brain aneurysm surgery and all that went along with it. What's more, somehow in recent weeks, I've found a new rhythm, one predictable enough that I've managed to reclaim a significant portion of the creative momentum I developed while pursuing my MFA in writing for children from Vermont College.

Bottom line after last week's crit group meeting: I'm definitely working in the right direction with this latest version of my story. And, better than that, I can actually imagine KM as a book.

This is good. Training my inner editor was a big part of my MFA program. Learning to reconcile it with my writer's heart continues to require work, and patience. And more patience. The awesome thing is the two seem to agree more often lately.

I have my current crit group to thank for my recent progress. Not only has the group forced me out of my hidey hole into real world conversations about writing and life twice monthly, the submission deadlines have given me much-needed permission to put Butt In Chair on a daily basis. It's also gratifying to work closely with two women whose writing I respect, whose opinions I trust, who know my characters well--sometimes better than I do, and who feel invested enough in my story that they're willing to brainstorm with me about it's shape.

What more can a writer ask for?

On deck this week: on deadline for the May issue of Edge of the Forest. Also continuing my write-through of KM.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Crit Group Day and Jewel Report

We've been trading spring colds back and forth at our house for the last couple of weeks or so. My youngest S is the latest victim. Poor thing was a wreck earlier this week, but her cough's finally under control, and she's back at school. Good timing because critique group's today.

My fingers are crossed S makes it the whole day because I need specific feedback to confirm whether or not I'm headed in the right direction with my piece. Here's hoping I don't need to leave early.

Bum foot report: The podiatrist says my foot's doing great, but since I no longer have the constitution of an 18-year-old, I should expect to wear the boot the full six weeks. Bummer. At least there's no snow on the ground.

Jewel report: Because of illness and scheduling problem's, Jewel didn't stay with us this past weekend; so, she's visiting with us this week. We took her home Monday after the training session. Shortly after E and I arrived that night, Jack released Jewel from her kennel. Jewel stepped out and sat, her eyes bright, her tail thumping the hardwood floor.

"Jew-wel," E called. "Jewel come." Jewel bounded across the gym floor, wagging her entire body, and slid to a halt with plenty of clearance.

E hugged Jewel. Jewel kissed E. Judging by the number of hugs and kisses passed between the two, both were thrilled to see each other.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bodice Rippers, Love and Danger, Chicklits, and Other Affairs of the Heart

After registering for last weekend's Romance Writers of America conference, I was uncertain what to expect.

On the one hand, I'd heard for years that romance writers are a savvy group of women (and men) who know more about self promotion and pitching an editor than any other writer's group out there. On the other hand, when compared to Newbery winners, romances tend to be literary lightweights, and hadn't I just graduated from an MFA program focused on creating literary works?

Didn't take long for me to realize how much power I'd given my inner critic.

Lightweight or not, I enjoy a good bodice ripper, especially as a way to cleanse my palate after reading yet another children's problem novel. Not that I despise problem novels. I quite enjoy them for the insights they give children wrestling with similar issues, and they're an excellent study in craft.

But here's the thing: On dark days when life conspires, I'm not in the mood for a serious story. I need a quick read. An escapist read. A book I can finish in an evening. I need to be entertained by snappy dialogue, quirky characters, and intriguing plot lines. Much in the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer wowed viewers during its prime-time run.

I shoved aside my inner critic, wrote my check, and attended the conference.

What a blast! RWA members are down to earth, professional, and eager to mentor young writers. Many of the workshops offered fresh tips and techniques suitable for any fiction writer's toolbox. Sessions included "Getting Out of Deadwood" (revisioning), "Love and Danger: A Combustible Mix," "Battling the Voices of Doom," and "Avoiding the Pitfalls of Historical Research," to name a few.

Best-selling authors Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer headlined the weekend with laugh-out-loud stories about surviving the creative process and each other. Acquiring editors shared their wisdom, and their growing need for chicklit and paranormals (romance stories with a strong gothic, horror, sci-fi or fantasy thread.) All in attendance talked about the importance of keeping butt in chair above all else, and trusting the process. And yes, for the record, this group knows how to market.

By weekend's end my nifty black conference bag was brimming with free books, business cards, and promotional materials. I returned home eager to return to my work in progress, and inspired to resurrect a stalled manuscript for those days my current project needs time to simmer.

Appetite for writing: Ravenous.

Current read: Laurell K. Hamilton's A Stroke of Midnight.

On deck: The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley reviewed here by Kelly Herold of Big A little a.