Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Remembering Sooke and My Place of Power

I firmly believe we writers need a place of power, some when or some where we can visit in person or in our mind's eye, especially when our muse needs peace, clarity and inspiration. My place of power is in Sooke. On days like today when the weather's gray and rainy, and my muse wants to do anything else but sit butt in chair for the hard work of writing, I remember Sooke, the sea, C's Fabulous Sooke Writer's Retreat on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, fresh blueberry Welsh cakes, the big red barn, and hikes through these woods.

How I Amused My Muse This Thanksgiving

Whew! Didn't get much writing done during over Thanksgiving break, but not putting fingers to keyboard was a good trade off for an action-packed weekend that's sure to amuse my muse for years to come.

For the holiday we traveled over the river, through the woods, and past hundreds of acres of corn fields to visit P's folks near Springfield, Illinois. After three-plus hours on the road Wednesday evening, and a dinner break at the Bloomington-Normal Steak N Shake, we arrived with enough time to stretch our legs, visit, and introduce Jewel to Truman, the newest member of the household.

Truman is an eight-years-young wire-haired terrier. P's dad adopted him in October from a rescue organization in Minneapolis. The dog's a gem. He knows how to beg, sit, stay, roll over and play dead. He even heels without prompting. But despite his fine breeding, he resented E's service dog Jewel entering the house..which made for an interesting evening.

The next morning, P's dad came up with the idea of holding onto Jewel's leash, showing he was in control of the situation. Once Truman saw that P's dad was in charge of the interloper, he relaxed enough to tolerate Jewel as long as she kept her distance. By midday he allowed her to explore the house and prance about, but made it known he'd rather lay about, and don't push him to do otherwise or suffer the consequences, thank you very much. Here's what amused my muse: Jewel's three times the size of Truman, yet she gave him his distance. Watching the two dogs work out their differences was a fascinating, dog-whisperer type situation. Thankfully, Jewel was willing to step aside from the alpha dog roll she assumes at our house. Amazing how the pack mentality kicks in so quickly.

For Thanksgiving dinner, P's dad did all the planning, prep and cooking. Midafternoon, we gathered around the table for a feast of honey-crusted ham, turkey breast, creamy ranch potatoes, green bean casserole, two different kinds of jello molds--one with walnuts, celery and apple slices, the other with pineapple, corn casserole in honor of B (P's brother who passed away six years ago), pumpkin pie, and more I'm certain I've forgotten. As always the visit was great fun, but too short.

We returned midafternoon Friday with enough time for our oldest E to connect with The Boys (the name she's given the group of nine-plus boy friends who adopted her as one of their own her senior year of high school) for a feast, a game of capture the flag, and Dungeons and Dragons.

Saturday our family headed to the mall for a family picture, something we haven't had the time, energy or health to do since before E's aneurysm rupture six years ago. Feels good doing something so mundane and ordinary. Feels as if we've finally come full circle.

Current read: Deborah Wile's Each Little Bird that Sings. It's lovely, and takes on difficult topics--death and grief--with grace and humor. I can see now why it was nominated for a National Book Award. And I have to say that having the opportunity to meet Deb and listen to her speak at Vermont College during my MFA program (and hearing the inside story of how the book came to be) gives her story that much more power and depth.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The new Edge of the Forest has Appeared

The new Edge of the Forest online children's literature monthly is now available on cyber newstands. Surf on by for reviews, interviews, and more. Contributions by yours truly include an interview with the very funny and very talented children's book writer, Carolyn Crimi, and a "man-on-the-street" survey of writers, editors and an agent about "What's in Their Backpack."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Crit Groups, Short Stories, and E on her New Bike

A few weeks ago I posted news about writing a grant for E to receive a handcycle from Athletes Helping Athletes, and winning said grant. I wanted to post a pic of E on her cruiser to accompany that post, but was unable to do so because our camera was on the fritz at the time. Well, we finally convinced Best Buy to give us a replacement camera while they continue to "fix" the one that's been in and out of their shop since Labor Day. Which means we were able to take a pic late yesterday afternoon. Sorry about the lighting. By the time P and I figured out all the bells and whistles on the camera, the sun had nearly set.

One the writing front, critique group meets today. On tap for me: feedback on my ghost story so far. It's not quite done, but almost there...probably less than 500 words more to wrap it up. I can't believe I've been working on it for this long. I started this puppy midsummer. I remember Sharon Darrow mentioning in a Vermont College discussion once that she averaged nine months or so to draft and finalize a short story. I didn't quite grok the concept then. Now I do. Syncing the events so they unfold just right is like piecing together a puzzle when you don't know it's shape.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Chatter, Time-outs, and Prairie Writer's Day

Let's face it. We writers value our quiet time. In this space we commune with our muse and discover our stories.

If we're lucky enough to find ways to cut the chatter long enough to do so.

During the months following E's aneurysm rupture, I struggled with so much chatter I was too emotionally exhausted to return phone calls let alone form a coherent sentence. I remember suffering a tremendous amount of guilt preferring Gilligan's Island reruns to something with substance, and waiting for friends and relatives to call me instead of initiating anything.

Looking back on that time now, I'm not surprised I had trouble. My brain was on overload. Much of the chatter I lived with arose from my fear of not knowing who E would be after she recovered, my grief at finding our family in that place, and my anger that such a thing could happen to me, to us, and to E, who'd come into the world with so many challenges ahead of her.

Through trial and error, I discovered ways to reduce the chatter long enough to leverage the alone time I needed to channel my muse. Vermont College was a catalyst for change. So were my advisers, Ellen Levine, Sharon Darrow, Jane Resh Thomas, Tim Wynne-Jones, and my classmates, the MVPs. Their patience and support shepherded me through dark months when I seriously questioned my decision to pursue an MFA in writing for children while guiding E through her recovery.

Fortunately, I discovered what works for me. Unfortunately, the quiet place where my muse resides very often brings me face to face with the fears that built up the chatter in the first place.

Thankfully, I've learned ways to summon the strength needed to banish my fears long enough for my characters to step forward so that I might tell their stories. The tools I've collected in my writer's toolbox don't always work. However, on good days, my characters enter the stage of my story ready to work, and my biggest challenge as their lives unfold like a movie is typing fast enough to keep up with them.

The good days are the reason I write through the dark times. Muscling through when every sentence sounds like crap is part of my process. So is muzzling my inner critic if at all possible when I do so.

I muscle through the dark days because the payoff is worth it. Light exists on the other side. As does a paragraph, page or chapter that sings.

Let the dishes call. Let my daughters dig through the laundry baskets for clean underwear and socks. Instead of giving in the siren's call of leaving my chair to do anything else but writing, I dig in my heels. I slog through the shit. I keep writing. Unless my kids run into the room screaming about blood or fire. Or my characters start acting out of character.

When my characters grow grandiose, petulant, close-mouthed--you name it, they need space. And I need space.

I give myself permission to shut my laptop. I might write in a notebook instead. Or write outside or in a cafe. If that doesn't work. I find something else to do...reading, research, another project. Anything to give my story breathing space. I've found that even in that space, my muse is still writing, working out character arcs, sorting out events.

Last weekend's Prairie Writer's Day provided my story the perfect simmer time because, quite frankly, nothing quite inspires my muse the way a roomful of writers does.

I know I've talked about many of these reasons in previous posts, but they're so powerful for me, they deserve repeating.

With fellow writers:
* you don't need to explain why you're not published yet.
* you don't need to explain why you keep submitting in the face of rejections.
* you don't need to explain why your idea of a good time is cruising a bookstore for the latest titles
* you don't need to justify the high you get after writing the perfect opening line.
* you don't need to explain why writing the book one time through doesn't mean it's ready for an editor.
* you don't need to explain that wherever you are in the process, you don't need to rush it. Where you are is right for you.

With fellow writers, you need only be yourself.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Conference Report, Part Deux

Three editors and an agent attended Prairie Writer's Day:

Beverly Reingold -- Farrar Straus & Giroux
Clarissa Hutton -- HarperCollins Children's Books
Julie Romeis -- Bloomsbury
Stephen Fraser -- Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

Each of the editors participated in a panel called "Editor/Author Duos." During the session, the pairs discussed the publishing process, including the months of rewrites and meetings required to bring their books into being.

Duos included:
Brenda Ferber and Beverly.
Aaron Reynolds and Julie.
Laura Ruby and Clare.

This session was one of my favorites. Brenda and Beverly read from the letters they sent back and forth during the months of revisions to Julia's Kitchen. Aaron and Julie talked about Chicks and Salsa, the importance of timing, and the spark needed to catch an editor's eye. For example, one of the main reasons Chicks and Salsa appealed to Julie is because she (and the rest of her office) loves South-of-the-border food. Clare and Laura talked about Lily's Ghost and the many loving revisions it took before it went to print and was nominated for an Edgar.

What I learned:
*Be patient.
*The publishing business is glacial.
*Surround yourself with friends and fellow writers who understand.
*Do your homework.
*The right editor will love your book and characters as much as you do.
*The right editor will be a cheerleader, mentor, counselor, friend and advocate who loves your book so much he or she will lead you where you need to go in order to make your book the best it can be.
*Trust is a big factor in this process.
*Trust your editor. He or she knows the business.
*As you work with your editor, remind yourself, "the book is no longer mine, it's ours."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Conference Report

What a an awesome turn out for SCBWI-Illinois' Prairie Writer's Day. More than 175 writers attended. Most hailed from Illinois. Some traveled from Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and as far away as Pennsylvania.

I've so much to report about the day, I plan to post a little bit each day this week.

First of all, my First Pages critique went better than imagined. Discussion among the editors and agent ranged from the story's voice, to its tone, to its high fantasy feel, to the fact that the story opens from the antagonist's point of view.

Questions raised: The magical system is so unique it needs further simplification so the reader can better visualize its workings. (No surprise here. This has been a constant refrain with all my readers, even while developing the concept during my VC days. The more I read the novels that work, the more I realize how simple and specific magic needs to be in order for a reader to grasp it. Its almost there. I can feel it.)

Another observation: the language needs tweaking here and there to keep the tone from sounding too purple in places. An easy fix as I was experimenting with an omniscient narrator during deadline time for the First Pages submission, but hadn't yet had time to refine his voice.

Overall, comments were positive. I wish I had specifics about what was said. I tried taking notes, but my hand was shaking too hard to make sense of any of them.

Bottom line: Two of the editors are interested in reading KM. The third doesn't do fantasy. The agent wants to see more as well.

I feel a real connection with one of the editors. During the networking session late in the day, I introduced myself so she could place a name and face with the piece. She asked me more about the novel. I pitched the book, explaining the premise and the three alternativing points of view. She confirmed she definitely wants to read more. Woohoo.

Now all I have to do is finish quilting together the many versions of my story.

No pressure.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Off Days, Days off, and Prairie Writer's Day

My muse continues to cooperate. Although now that I'm on a roll, my girl's are home for a long weekend because of school conferences.

Having the girls home is a mixed blessing. I love the unstructured time. The lazing about the house in pjs until lunch. The talks over tea. The squeals of delight as my girls watch old favorites on Nick Jr. The respite from the routine is welcome. Unfortunately, the routine is what I depend on where my writing is concerned.

As a compromise, I've placed Post-it pads all over the house. By the end of the day, I need to search table tops, counters, and the dashboard for all the squares of paper I've generated. Writing in this way is less than ideal, but at least I feel like I'm making some forward progress.

A long string of post-its relate to my duties for tomorrow's SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Writer's Day. The popular day-long retreat offers novice and experienced writers the opportunity to connect with and learn from acquiring editors and agents.

Featured editors and agents scheduled to attend include:

Clarissa Hutton, Harper Collins
Beverly Reingold, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Julie Romeis, Bloomsbury
Stephen Fraser, Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency

The retreat will be held at the Priory campus of Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. With its vaulted ceilings, flagstone floors and stained glass windows, the Priory reminds me of a castle.

As PR co-chair of the Illinois SCBWI chapter, I'm on point for greeting the editors, agents, and special guests "at the door," introducing them around, ensuring they know where to sit, where they need to be, where to freshen up, etc. I'm thrilled and terrified by this opportunity. Thankfully, fellow crit group members, A and J, have offered to assist in this effort.

One of the most popular features of the day is the first-pages section. During this part of the program, anonymous first manuscript pages are read to the entire group (we're expecting 125 people or more), after which the editors and agents critique the sub, remarking on its strengths and discussing areas that raised questions.

Last year, one reading prompted an editor to jump up, asking, "Who wrote that?" Upon looking the elated author in the eye, he said, "We need to talk. Find me after we're done." Every writer's dream.

Since KM has evolved into multiple points of view, I submitted a first page from my antagonist's story. My fingers are crossed I don't embarass myself.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Muse Lost...and Found

My muse went on strike late last week. No matter how much I prodded and cajoled and begged, she led me in circles.

Talk about unnerving.

I finally withdrew, letting her be while I turned to other things...tidying up my work space, unearthing and paying overdue bills, making lists for my lists. And wracking my brain for reasons why my muse had gone silent.

While organizing the writer's corner in my dining room, I realized my mistake.

Normally, in order to ease into my creative writing zone, I read and meditate about some aspect of craft (usually something I'm struggling with in relation to my current work), and I write Morning Pages ala Julia Cameron in an effort to quiet my brain of the extraneous stuff before I channel my characters.

However, in my rush to make weekly deadlines for the online Writing YA class I took last month with Lauren Barnholdt, I let my morning ritual slide. For a time, I got away with it. Bouyed by positive feedback, I made terrific progress on KM, and even found a fresh new voice for my MC. Unfortunately, although the momentum sustained me through the class and then some, it ran dry last week.

Yesterday, desperate to write a scene that didn't spin in place, and facing a deadline for tomorrow's crit group, I returned to my morning routine. And kicked myself for not returning to it sooner.

First, I did a Medicine Card reading. Then I read a chapter on structure from Janet Evanovich's new craft book, How I Write, Secrets of a Bestselling Author. Next, I wrote about my readings, and anything else that wandered into my head.

What a difference Morning Pages made. By giving my thinking brain a formal place to dump all the crud--my worries about my girls, the concerns fueled by my inner critic, the fear that I truly am on Tolkien's timeline (read 15 years) for finishing a first novel, I cleared out the clutter.

And freed my muse.

Yesterday, I cranked. Not only did I write enough to make deadline for Wednesday's crit group, I felt more accepting of my own process.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Grants, Handcycles, and the Mighty Power of the Pen

Every now and again, I'm reminded why we writers must keep submitting in the face of the inevitable rejection.

Midsummer or so I wrote Athletes Helping Athletes on behalf of my 14 year old with the hope the group would consider awarding her a specialized handcycle, one we'd been told by her therapist would benefit her continuing recovery, but couldn't possibly afford on our own.

Well, *pumps arm wildly in the air* we won the grant.

E's bike is a low-rider, custom-built and midnight blue. Instead of pedaling with her feet, she pedals with her hands. The cycle arrived on a semi late Friday afternoon.

The first words out of E's mouth after she tried out her new wheels:

"This is awesome! You know my other bike? We can give that to a two-year-old who needs it."

E's other bike is a Fisher Price tricycle designed for toddlers. Unfortunately, it's the only one that fit her very small stature when we went shopping for it a couple years ago. Problem was none of E's friends rode three wheelers. She needed assistance getting onto and off the bike, requiring us to chaperone her at all times. And her left leg (affected by the aneurysm) slipped off the pedal if not strapped down.

Seeing the joy on E's face as she pedals down the street on her new bike puts all the rejections I've ever received into perspective. And gives me hope that the writing I'm most passionate about will continue to spark positive responses, and possibly someday soon, win a contract for my YA fantasy.

As for the tricycle, it's in the donations pile in our garage.