Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gingerbread, Candy, and Amusing the Muse

The hustle-bustle of the season continues to amuse my muse. Our latest adventure: Gingerbread House Night at church. Nearly 60 people attended the Friday night event, more than half of them kids. To say the evening was sugar-fueled would be an understatement. Each house builder was given an entire bowl of candy to use as he/she saw fit. For most of the kids, this meant eating the good stuff and using the rejects for the houses. The evening was raucous, but worth it. Why? Because nothing compared to seeing so many families slowing down long enough to embrace the reason for the season.

(photo(s) to follow as soon as our new computer's up and running.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tis the Season to Amuse the Muse, and Fill the Idea Well

No need to work overtime to amuse the muse and fill the Idea Well this holiday season. I've found that plenty of opportunities lurk amidst the hustle bustle of the season's festivities and preparations, if I slow down long enough to look.

Take this past weekend, for example. E, S and I attended two Christmas parties. The first was for the local chapter of Little People of America. Nearly 60 people attended, more than half of them little people. E was in her element, S and I in the minority. Seeing E surrounded by kids and adults her size (and grinning nonstop) was worth the hassle of packing up the dog and equipment and traveling to the boondocks. Traveling with E is never easy, but I'm always glad after the fact. Events like the LPA party tip my world sideways, and fill my Idea Well in surprising and unexpected ways.

The other weekend party we attended was for E's Morris Service Dog program. Festivities began with awards for program graduates, and ended with an open mic for those who wanted to says a few words. Many of the stories recounted the unexpected benefits the dogs had brought to their new owners. One of the most touching tales was from a woman whose service dog saved her life not once, but multiple times during the last year. How could my well not be filled after hearing this and other stories?

Current read: Divine Evil by Nora Roberts. Well done, suspenseful page-turner. One of the rare few this year that's had me staying up well past bedtime to read.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Thanksgiving Tales to Amuse the Muse

A number of Thanksgiving happenings continue to inspire (and amuse) my muse:

1. Caramel apple roadkill--the homemade Thanksgiving pie that was--until P's aunt drove off with it still resting on top of her car. The only thing that survived after she rescued the dessert from the middle of the road between her place and ours: a half-moon sliver of the most delicious pie I've ever tasted. Sigh.

2. The Christmas star--visible from my office window just after sunset yesterday. A similar conjunction of the moon, Venus and Jupiter, appeared in 2 B.C. Some historians consider it to be the source of the star of Bethlehem.

3. Meeting of the pooches--It was a three-dog night of the unusual kind at my sister's house on Thanksgiving. The pooches in attendance included E's service dog, a black lab named Jewel, J's pocket Schnauzer Zoey, and sister C's toy chiuaua. J's and C's dogs were newcomers. Picture a meeting between the three with Jewel sitting quietly, her head cocked to one side, while the chiuaua quivered in her fuzzy pink hoodie, and the pocket dog, clueless that Jewel could swallow her whole, wrestled with the big dog's tail.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Writing a Synopsis that Sells

A discussion on the Illinois SCBWI listserve about the how-tos of writing a synopsis turned up a gem today: a link to a blog called Editorial Anonymous. In a series of posts, the editor behind said blog analyzes various synopses. Very educational to read her thoughts on what's working, what's not, and why.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Twilight Countdown--The Witching Hour Nears

The buzz surrounding the midnight premiere of Twilight, the movie based on Stephanie Meyer's best-selling book by the same name hasn't escaped Lockport. The topic of conversation as my 16-year-old found her seat on the bus this morning was the same as it has been for the last month or more--the latest on the books, the upcoming movie and the film's male lead, Robert Pattison, the former Cedric Diggory from Harry Potter, and newest heartthrob to hit the scene since Zac Efron. The phenomenon has so engaged teen readers, I'm rereading Meyer's Twilight series, anaylyzing her dialogue, themes, setting, characterization, etc. to gain insight into the magic that is one of the most wildly popular teen action/adventure/love stories seen in years.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Harry Potter Fans Unite with Alternity

Attention Harry Potter fans! JK Rowling may have put down her pen where Harry is concerned, but her fans haven't. Surf on over to Alternity, a Harry Potter alternative universe RPG, created by award-winning author Peg Kerr and company. For details on the site and story lines surf on over to Peg's online journal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's Alive!

Returning to "normal" after E's recent hospitalization and subsequent illness (she finally returned to school Monday after being out two weeks) has been rougher than usual. My writing life suffered; so did my to-do list which I managed to lose during the height of things.

Little by little I'm reducing the rubble, returning phone calls, reorganizing projects, and cobbling together a sense of order which I pray holds together long enough for me to feel as if I've finally dug myself out of this hole.

On top of my writing to-do list for the rest of this week and next:

1. KM--It's alive again! After a hiatus in which I let the tome percolate I finally have a sense of where it needs to go next.

2. Chicken Soup for the Soul--I'm on deadline for another short story for a December due date. On the heels of this story, I've been asked to consider another. No guarantees that my stories will be accepted, but hot leads are better than cold ones, and it's very cool to be given the opportunity. By the way, if you're feeling inspired, new call outs for story ideas are available on the Chicken Soup website.

3. Good Days Bad Days--a new online zine is in the works for children living with chronic or terminal illness. I've been working on a number of ideas to propose to the editor of this mag. Talk about writing what you know. I've lived it for the last eight years.

4. Office Clean Sweep--It's time. My piles are now piled on top of piles, making file retrieval and storage problematic at best, and I've three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that need assembly so I can find homes from all of my books (which seem to multiply overnight.)

5. Think Sideways--A few months ago I started a writing course with Holly Lisle called Think Sideways. The course is amazing and inspiring, but I've fallen dreadfully behind of late. Time to catch up, and trust that this, too, is part of my process.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Arwen, Halloween and an Unexpected Journey

What a difference a day makes. Yeah, I know, the saying's overdone. But sometimes it really does fit the situation.

Case in point: Tuesday morning E and I braved rush-hour traffic to commute into Chicago for what was supposed to be a routine visit with her kidney doctor. E's blood pressure was a bit high after we arrived, but the fact didn't surprise me. The ride into the city took us two hours when it should have taken an hour, and with service dog Jewel at E's side we race-walked our way to the office in order to arrive at the appointment on time.

The visit went predictably enough after that. The nurse logged E's pressure, temp, height and weight, and confirmed meds; the resident took a new blood pressure reading; and, well, that's when the morning took an interesting turn.

The resident's reading was high, too. Three more staffers took pressures. E is significantly smaller than the average 16 year old, the resident reasoned out loud, and he'd taken the reading off her weaker left side. Maybe he was using the wrong sized cuff. Maybe if they used a different cuff on her good side...

I don't remember the exact numbers everyone got, but I know the average on top was in the 140s and on the bottom, over 110. E is the size of a two year old. Two year olds shouldn't have pressures that high. My mind went numb at that point because the last time we had numbers like that E was in the pediatric ICU fighting for her life after her aneurysm rupture.

Crap, I remember thinking. No way this can be good. "That's not good is it?" I asked the room. All eyes turned to Dr. L who took his own reading. "I can't let you leave," he said at last.

I remember staring at Dr. L at this point, hearing but not hearing what he was saying. "What do you mean?" I said, knowing his answer before hearing it.

"I need to admit E," he said. "Her pressure is too high. With her history of aneurysms, and the one in the kidney, we need to find out why it's so high and get it controlled."

I nodded, very much aware that just like that our world had shifted sideways.

Long story short, E spent the next 36 hours undergoing a battery of tests and blood draws to uncover the reason for her high blood pressure. The team ruled out aneurysm rupture, shunt malfunction, infection, and heart, kidney and lung issues.

In the end, the culprit was E's diet. Thank God for easy solutions. E's now on a restricted sodium diet. She's not thrilled she has to give up her favorite after-school snack of baby pickles, but as we find new "legal" snacks, she's getting used to the idea.

Now onto the next hurdle. Getting E over a nasty cough and cold, which seems to have taken hold in time for her to miss Halloween. Bummer.

E planned her costume for the day all by herself. We were looking forward to seeing people's faces as they opened their door to a diminutive high schooler dressed as Arwen from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

First choice for a Halloween costume a fictional character from a beloved childhood favorite? Makes my muse proud.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Carnival of Children's Literature is Live

For some of the latest on children's books and all things kids lit, attend the October Carnival of Children's Literature.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Writerly Report from the Trenches

The life of a writer mom is never dull. The last couple of weeks have been no exception. Just a few of the writerly to-dos I've crossed off my list recently:

Harvest Literacy Conference
J's and my presentation at Saint Xavier University about writers' workshops for youth and teens went quite well. The room was full. Feedback was positive. What you should keep in mind before offering your own teen writers' workshop:

1. Don't lecture.
2. Be flexible.
3. Keep activities short.
4. Look for hands-on ways to illustrate various aspects of the craft.
5. Provide a safe, supportive, creative environment.
6. Offer an open mic. The majority of the teens we work with want to read.
7. I said it earlier, but it's so essential when working with teens that it bears repeating: be flexible.

Critique group
J, A and I met last week. A was the only one who submitted creative. It's been this way for the last couple or three meetings. J and I are still working, but not on our novels.

J's been working hard on her new website, LitforAll. The site is based on the premise that great art isn't created in a vacuum. Readers are encouraged to explore the connections between some of the world's most famous writers and the peers of their time.

I've been working on short stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort. Since the end of August I've completed and submitted three. Along the way, I've shared a couple of my drafts in progress with the group. But, in general, I've worked on my own because crit group deadlines didn't lend themselves to my schedule.

Our group celebrated a milestone not long ago. We've been together three years. Hard to believe it's been that long. We found each other in the fall of 05, not long after I graduated from Vermont College. I feel so fortunate to have found this group. Without it, I know I would have dropped kicked my novel by now. Thanks, ladies. You inspire me to keep going in the face of fear, self-doubt, and life's little conspiracies. You keep me honest with your editor's eyes. And you encourage me to trust the process.

Teen Writers' Workshop
Last Friday's teen writers' workshop was a blast. Our topic, writing ghost stories, was well attended. Kate Gingold, an old high school friend and fellow children's book author, talked about her most recent book project, Haunted by History: Spectres in a Small Town, and shared her own personal connection to things that go bump in the night. After her talk, Kate helped us read a ghost story to the light of an electric candle and glowing pumpkins. After discussing the elements that make the story work--mood, atmosphere, language, plot, and, of course, a ghost with an agenda--we built a group ghost story using the lessons we'd learned, and objects drawn from a witch's hat--a clawed hand, a roll of tape, and a bat, just to name a few. The teens jumped at the chance to share stories about their own ghostly encounters. We ran out of time, but extended the meeting after it became evident that most everyone had come ready to read at open mic, and was eager to do so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Walking More, Driving Less, and Amusing the Muse

The downside about walking more and driving less in an effort to stretch the family budget: getting caught in the rain on the way home from walking with your daughter to school.

The upside: amusing the muse and arriving home with story ideas because of it.

Note to self: Write them down before you leave for the Harvest Literacy Conference.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This and that from the Writer's Front

1. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to meet Kelly Herold, editor of Big A little a, and Edge of the Forest. Kelly and I "met" two and a half years ago when I began writing for her fab publication, but, until Saturday, we had never had the opportunity to match faces with names. Kelly spoke at the SCBWI-Illinois Chicago Southlands network program about blogging and making your writer self known on the Web. The talk was informative and inspirational. Way to go Kelly! Thanks for making the drive to Illinois, and inspiring me to expand my horizons with the following:

2. I created a Facebook account tonight. Fair warning, it's rudimentary, but it's a start.

3. Despite the short notice, I made yesterday's submission deadline for "My Resolution," a book in progress for Chicken Soup for the Soul. No word yet on whether or not the story made the cut. But I did receive confirmation that they received it. Felt great to bang out another short story in such a finite amount of time. God bless a deadline. It does a writer good.

4. Anticipating the Harvest Literacy Conference . Everything's packed and waiting at the front door. J and I are presenting on writer's workshops for youth and teens. Last we heard, the conference was sold out.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On deadline for Chicken Soup for the Soul!

I'm on deadline for another short story for Chicken Soup for the Soul. The book in progress is called My Resolution. The piece is due Monday morning. The awesome thing about this job: I was invited to submit. How cool is that?

Looking for an Escape from the Muggle World?

Attention Harry Potter fans. If you're tired of watching your retirement savings tank and you need an escape from the Muggle world, surf on over to this live journal where characters from the Harry Potter universe post on a daily basis.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Best Laid Plans of Writer Moms--Or Why My Characters Had to Wait Another Day

Living the life of a writer mom is never dull, and often crazed. Why? Our kids inform our lives, providing us with reams of writing ideas. Yet, finding the uninterrupted time to breath life into those stories is damned near impossible some days.

Take yesterday, for example. E had an appointment with a new doctor. The appointment was necessary because we've been limping along without a formal neurologist for quite some time.

To be honest, we probably would have limped along even longer if E's opthomalogist hadn't noticed something odd about E's behavior during a routine visit not too long ago.

"Mom, how long has E been doing that?" Dr. D asked after chatting with E about how sophomore year was going.

"Doing what?" I asked, unable to see what she was driving at.

"Stopping in the middle of a conversation like that?"

To me, the behavior was part of E's lexicon. Ever since the aneurysm rupture, she's routinely stopped in the middle of stories and sentences to find a word or thought or to start over again. Of late, the pauses had become more prolonged, but I chalked them up to E's most recent illness, and the fact that she was still catching up on her sleep.

The doctor suggested that maybe those pauses were something more serious. Seizures.

After getting reassurances that the suspected type of seizures didn't require emergency care, I wasted no time finding a neurologist and making an appointment for the next available time.

As long as the physician didn't order any tests immediately following E's appointment, my plan afterward was to return E to school and zip back home in time to sit butt in chair for a good three hours of writing and work time before meeting the bus.

The universe had other plans.

E's appointment was at 9 with a promised 8:45 arrival to allow enough time fill out all the necessary paperwork. The ride was 40 minutes on a good day. I knew ahead of time that the tollway was under construction, so I took a short cut. Unfortunately, the short cut took twice as long.

An hour and a half after leaving the house, we pulled up to the hospital. It was under construction, and signage was so confusing that I swear--and this is no lie--that at one intersection, the arrows to the entrance we were looking for pointed in opposite directions.

This wouldn't have been an issue if we weren't running so late. By the time we pulled up to the Women's and Children's Pavilion entrance, we had less than five minutes to unload the service dog and our gear, and find the clinic so we'd be on time for the actual appointment.

Locking my keys in the car in my rush to unload E and Jewel was the piece de resistance. I stared at the keys with disbelief.

The doctor's office policy clearly states that anyone later than 15 minutes must reschedule his or her appointment. I've wasted enough time waiting for doctors that I truly appreciate a policy like this one. Unfortunately, here I was, needing to hear if my fears about my daughter were true. And I was about to be turned away and forced to wait another six weeks for a new patient appointment to open up.

The valet took pity on me. Rather than making me wait for hospital security to arrive and attempt to unlock the car, he let me leave it in the unloading zone, and promised to call me on my cell if they ran into problems freeing my keys.

Hospital security worked its magic and moved the car without disrupting our appointment. The physician, like the majority of Children's Hospital specialists we've worked with, was knowledgable, thorough, and willing to spend the time needed to educate me, and calm me down. Yes, he confirmed Dr. D's fear, and mine. E's behavior is consistent with seizures. Further testing must be done before a definite diagnosis can be made, and treatment can be as simple as tweaking her existing medication.

Long story short, by the time we got home yesterday, I had little time or energy left for writing. But I don't consider the day a bust.

Thanks to our journey there and back again, my muse has plenty of fodder to work with for future stories, and I came away with a plan for E, one we hope will provide workable answers and a path forward in the near future.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's Away!

Woohoo! I did it. I finished my short story for Cup of Comfort on time. Pressed send at 10:53 p.m. yesterday. Now it's the waiting game.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Strange Candy, Teen Writers, and Deadlines, Oh My

Popping in with a brief update on how I've been spending my time since ILA. After channeling most all my creative energies into the presentation with J, I've been recuperating, shoveling out my office, and:

1. Flying high since learning that my short story is a finalist for Power Moms, a new Chicken Soup for the Soul book scheduled for release in March 2009.

2. Planning for and co-leading last Friday's Teen Writers' Workshop. Old and new faces joined us to discuss the ins and outs of getting published. The group especially enjoyed the cover letter exercise in which we discussed what not to do when presenting your work. Then we pretended we'd written Twilight and needed to "sell" the story idea to an editor.

3. Playing nursemaid to E who began hacking and coughing over the weekend and is now home sick and miserable with a nasty sinus infection.

4. Escaping into a variety of books. Two of the most recent: Laurell K. Hamilton's provocative short story collection Strange Candy, and, because I've needed an extra boost of late, Writer Mama by Christina Katz.

5. Finalizing another short story in hopes of sending it off by the end of today for consideration for Cup of Comfort, an inspirational series similar in tone and presentation to Chicken Soup for the Soul. The book I'm writing for will be marketed to parents of special needs children. Despite operating on minimal sleep thanks to E's latest illness, my muse remains motivated by the thought of finishing the piece on time. On that note, time to return butt in chair.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

ILA, First dates, First Cuts, and Good News!

Illinois Library Association report:
J's and my presentation at ILA yesterday about youth and teen writers' workshops went quite well yesterday. It felt a bit like planes, trains and bicycles getting to Navy Pier by 8:15 to meet K. (Jen had to leave her house by 5:30 to get to my house by 6, etc.) We beat the morning rush, and made it to our room at the far end of the Pier with enough time to set up and find coffee before the session started. Nearly 50 turned out to hear our workshop. Two came in to find seats a good 45 minutes before start time. And despite the fact that people at the session next door were learning to entertain younger youth by eating cake, playing games, and singing songs like "Take me out to the ballgame" at the top of their lungs, only a couple people left early and the time flew by. Attendees indulged us as we led them through some of the exercises our teens use to build stories and unblock their creativity. Overall feedback was positive. One down one to go. Next up: Saint Xavier University's Harvest Literacy Conference in mid October. Same topic. Shorter session. Which means we have some editing to do between now and then.

First dates:
Our middle daughter E had her first official date last weekend. Mr. K did it right by asking E to homecoming in a big way. The week before the dance he arrived in biology class with a dozen roses in hand, and popped the question. As you can tell from the picture, the fact that they went as good friends didn't bother E at all. She was in seventh heaven, and claims they've already made plans to go out again. This time to a home football game where she will wear his jersey.

First Cuts:
This little header is last but not least. It refers to the good news I found in my email box this a.m. The short story I submitted at the end of last month to Chicken Soup for the Soul for one of their books in progress, Power Moms, is being considered for publication. Woohoo!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Wearing my Advocacy Hat, and Other Reasons I Haven't Been Writing

The beginning of the school year often signals the need to don my advocacy hat where my two younger daughters are concerned. This year has been no exception.

Earlier this month, E's electric scooter supplier required considerable prodding in order to make good on a promised modification. The rep arrived yesterday to loan us a new seat while he fixes the old one.

There's also the matter of E's physical therapy schedule. Over the summer we discovered E needed therapy big time because her left leg and hip had tightened considerably. We made a call to the high school mid summer to let them know E had started regular therapy with Easter Seals, and that she'd require continued therapy during the school year. As of this week, we're finally moving toward a school therapy plan that coordinates with the one at Easter Seals.

Then there's S. My twelve year old struggles with a condition called childhood apraxia of speech. She understands what someone says just fine, but when she tries to express herself, she stutters, often so profoundly that friends and family feel compelled to finish her thoughts, rather than wait for her to get unstuck.

Unfortunately, this type of apraxia isn't something you grow out of. Over time the hope is that you'll learn strategies to minimize its effects.

This summer, despite daily speech exercises not to lose the progress S made last year, the condition worsened. To give you an idea of what's been happening at our house, tasks most people take for granted--like talking on the phone to friends, or chatting at the dinner table about how our day went--became so difficult for S that she turned to jotting down her conversations on paper rather than saying anything out loud.

The first day of school I sought out the speech therapist, D, begging her for help. "Something's wrong," I said. "S is worse off now than when school ended."

"Have you tried using her software during conversation?"

The software D was referring to is an amazing tool called FluencyCoach. With it and a headset, S is able to read out loud at 90 percent fluency. With few exceptions, we used it daily over the summer for reading. But I'd never imagined the software could be used for anything else.

"You can do that?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," she said, nodding. "A number of kids have success this way. When S comes home today, ask her about how her day went while using the software, and let me know what happens."

"What about the rest? S seriously went down hill this summer. Her friends talk for her these days. And she did a rock dance camp at the end of July, and on the ride home each day it took her 10 minutes to get out one sentence about how her day went. 10 minutes. We can't let her live like this. It's not right. It's not fair. There has to be a way to help her."

D's forehead wrinkled the way it does when she's thinking. "Try the software after school. I'll work on things from this end. Don't worry. We'll figure this out."

That afternoon, I called S over to the computer.

"Hey there, sweetie," I said as she dumped her backpack on the floor. "Come here a sec. I need you to try something."

"Wh-what?" she asked.

"Mrs. S has an idea on how we can help you talk easier. It's a different way to use your software. Here." I held out the headset. "Put these on, and tell me about your day."

I'll never forget the look of surprise on S's face when she spoke her first sentence. She was perfect. No blocks. No stutters. Just slow easy speech. She grinned and dove in, telling me about every last detail of her day, down to what she ate at lunch.

That was the first time I cried that day. The next was later that night when S used the software to talk with P. He sat there speechless as S talked and talked, not stopping long enough for us to get but a word or two in edgewise.

"What's your favorite color? Mine is pink.

"What's your favorite food? Mine is mandu.

"What's your favorite..." And on and on.

It came spilling out, one question after the other, as if S was catching up on years of pent-up conversation. P and I sat and listened. Until we did what we never thought we'd ever be able to do with our youngest daughter. We cut S off because it was way past bedtime.

As you might imagine, butt in chair time has been rare these days as I advocate for the next step: getting this software into S's classrooms so that her teachers and friends can get to know the real S. I was willing to advocate for the school loading software on every classroom computer. But it turns out a portable device exists, one you can wear on your belt. D went to bat for S and won approval for the equipment. The PO went out last week!

On deck: presenting at the Illinois Library Association Annual Conference tomorrow. Somehow, in the midst of all the craziness we writer moms endure on a daily basis, J and I managed to pull together our Powerpoint about our experience leading the Orland Park Public Library's writers' workshop for youth and teens. K, our partner in crime from the Orland Park Public Library, says she thinks the slide show looks great. Fingers and toes crossed that everyone else agrees. We're on tomorrow at 9. Wish us luck.

Current read: Allies of the Night by Darren Shan.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Checking in and Writing What I Know

E missed three school days last week thanks to a nasty cold, which meant my writing had to take a back seat. Rather than frustrate myself by trying to work on KM while E was actively sick, I turned to a number of shorter pieces that I've been meaning to tackle. One of the first jobs I targeted: a query and five first-draft articles for a new zine that's slated to hit the web soon called Good Days Bad Days.

Talk about writing what you know! The zine will target children aged 5-13 with chronic or terminal physical conditions. Having lived the ins and outs of E's aneurysms for seven years now, I'm confident I can speak from the trenches on this one, and, more importantly, help E to do the same.

In addition to drafting articles for several other writing projects I've been meaning to pursue, I continued work on the presentation J and I are making at the Illinois Library Association meeting in downtown Chicago later this month about teen writers' workshops.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Made Deadline by That Much

Friday I challenged myself to submit a story for a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology before its September 1st deadline. Despite a parade, a picnic, and an optometrist's appointment, I did it with 15 minutes to spare. Yes! Nothing beats the added incentive a built-in deadline gives a writer. Sure, beating the clock is always good for the soul. But more than that, a fixed deadline gives you permission to write with a defined goal in mind. And the feeling when you've reached that goal? Magic.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Kick in the Pants and Other Ways to Motivate Your Muse

I keep a variety of tools in my writer's toolbox designed to kick my muse in the pants. Deadlines are one of them. Some are self-imposed. Others come from outside sources by way of a contest, submission deadline, or editor.

Self-imposed deadlines are nefarious in my mind because unless you're a drill sergeant, it's easy to let them slide. Fixed deadlines, on the other hand, are my very best friends. With few exceptions, outside due dates are non-negotiable, despite family obligations, illness, or procrastination.

I work best under the pressure of a fixed deadline. The habit stems from my days as a columnist and before that, from college, where I learned how to write news on deadline. Staring at a blank screen with a deadline looming was unnerving at first. But the consequences of not doing the work on time were so extreme--getting an F for the assignment, for example--that I learned quickly.

Learning how to cage the inner critic and summon the muse at will is good practice for any writer. It's also an excellent way to learn about letting go. Which is why I've given myself a writing deadline for the weekend.

Monday is the submission deadline for a proposed story for Stay at Home Moms and Power Moms, a book in development for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. The market's a paying one and the required length is only 300-1200 words. I'm on it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Word of the Day

Not yet started on MA because it took me an hour to clean up my inbox and chat with S's speech teacher about concerns for the coming school year. One of the last emails I read was my Word of the Day from Today's word: argillaceous. No clue what it means? It was a new one for me, too. Look it up here. I try to use my word of the day in a sentence the day it arrives in my inbox. This should be interesting. I can't even imagine my characters saying it.

Writerly Celebration--Ding dong the Kids are Gone!

On the walk home from school today, I passed a number of moms lingering outside their cars, chatting about their summers, and celebrating the fact that today was their first full day without kids underfoot.

Said a fellow mom of a child with special needs as we stopped to chat for a few minutes: "A whole day by myself; I don't know what I'm going to do with a whole day."

I smiled, knowing exactly what I'll be doing. Writing. On tap for today: continued discovery of MA, a new story set in the same realm as KM. *Claps hands with abandon.* Can't wait to get started.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cooking up Tasty Revisions? Toes and Fingers Crossed

E's at school. Errands are done. S is sprawled on the sofa doodling in her sketch pad. Dinner's cooking, thanks to my trusty crock pot and a favorite recipe from Sparkpeople.

On the menu writing-wise: continued re-visioning of my current work-in-progress. Toes and fingers crossed that my muse joins me for this session.

On the menu for dinner: White Bean Chili . It's scrumptious and easy. I add a pound of ground turkey to the pot and voila! instant meal in a bowl.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Summertime, School Days, and Searching for My Muse at O'dark Thirty

Don't get me wrong. I love my girls and the chance to spend the summer exploring and lounging and wriggling our toes in the fresh-mown grass. What I don't love is the loss of uninterrupted writing time our relaxed schedule brings.

Last year, I ensured regular butt-in-chair time despite having my younger two underfoot by launching my Summer Writing Experiment and dragging myself out of bed to write at o'dark thirty each morning. Working on re-visions before the girls needed me was good for my soul and essential for my muse. The daily routine helped keep my characters near the surface so that whenever I sat down ready to work, they joined me without hesitation.

This summer, despite pleading and prodding, my muse refused to join me at my keyboard more than a handful of times during my 5 a.m. writing sessions. It wanted to work mid afternoons which conflicted with our summer schedule. To say that I've been frustrated by this turn of events would be an understatement. Sigh.

E returned to school full-time yesterday. S returns next Tuesday. At the risk of sounding like an ungrateful mom, I'm relieved. Here's hoping my muse is, too.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Writer Mom's Mini Break--One Way to Silence the Inner Critic and Honor the Process

Not too long ago, I caught myself lamenting my ability to write more, produce more, submit more.

What's wrong with me? I wondered. How is it that my colleagues--especially fellow writer moms--can find the time they need to sit-butt-in-chair each day, but I can't?

I wallowed in these thoughts and others until I connected the time of year with my mood. It's August. Self-defeating thoughts like this tend to find me this time of year. Why I didn't make the connection sooner is better left for another post.

Bottom line: the summer is winding down. The girls' thoughts have turned to school and the need to fit as much into the waning summer as possible. This has translated into busier days, and little time (or energy) leftover for doing the hard work of writing.

Once I realized where my mood had come from, I refused to wallow any longer. E returns to school the end of next week. S the week after that. During my morning-pages time the next day, I gave myself (and my muse) permission to to take a mini break until school starts.

My muse has been smiling ever since.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bulgogi, Drumming, Camp Pride Korea and ILA

Camp Pride Korea is this week. Both younger girls are attending, with me along as E's one-on-one aide. Camp is located near Woodfield. If we catch all the lights (which rarely ever happens) the drive North takes 45 minutes.

Anyhow, as exhausted as the girls are getting up at 6:30 in the morning each day, they're having a great time at camp. I suspect that one of the reasons they like it so much is that it's the one time of the year they can enter a classroom and not feel like a minority. (It's also the one time of the year I have trouble finding my girls in a crowd.)

Each 9-3 day brings lessons on Korean history, culture, arts, music, games, language and more. Campers eat on the premises, and all food is traditional. If E had the choice, she'd spend the entire day eating. She especially loves bulgogi, a traditional Korean dish that features thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame seed oil, green onions and sugar.

The week ends tomorrow with a performance by all 150+ kids. Both E and S will perform the Korean national anthem with their classroom, and S will join her classmates in a demonstration of Korean drumming. Other groups will perform fan dances and give tae kwon do demonstrations.

What little I've written this week of KM has been in the form of notes to attend to next week after I've had time to recuperate. The rest of my interrupted time has gone toward preparations for J's and my September ILA presentation about launching and running a teen writers' workshop at your library. We've a lot of holes left to fill before we have everything we need for our Powerpoint, but we're getting there.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Teen Writers' Workshop, Jack Prelutsky's Poetry Wheel, and Amusing the Muse, Part II

The Summer Poetry Series continues today at Teen Writers' Workshop. For an ice breaker (and to jump-start our muses), J and I plan to kick off activities with Jack Prelutsky's Poetry Wheel featured here in the July/August issue of Family Fun Magazine. Surf on over and take a spin. Your muse will thank you.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Amusing the Muse with Dr. Horrible

Hats off to Joss Whedon who has outdone himself with his latest project, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a 43-minute musical in three acts.

For reviews, news, a trailer, and instructions on how to download the episodes from I-Tunes, surf on over to the official Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog website, and the official Dr. Horrible myspace (and be ready to amuse your muse.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Summer Craziness, Butt in Chair Time, and Why it's Time to Ressurect the Summer Writing Experiment

Between E's twice weekly Easter Seals runs, on-going doctors' visits, and S's various camps and friend outings, the summer has become crazy enough that I can't depend on stealing away to a quiet corner of the house for serious butt in chair time during the day anymore. And since my muse is worthless after 9 p.m., it's time to resurrect the Summer Writing Experiment. More later when I have time to breathe.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Amusing the Muse at the Renaissance Faire

A trip to the Bristol Renaissance Faire is a sure way to amuse the muse. Here we are on opening day waiting for Dirk & Guido, the Swordsmen, to appear.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Writer's Retreat Round-Up

One of my sisters flew into town this week. As a result, I've been spending more time out of the house than in. In terms of writers, this means less butt in chair time, and even less time to post. Quick impressions re the Words in the Woods retreat:

1. Camp Cantrall is a kick-butt location to hold a retreat. Nestled in the woods Northwest of Springfield, Illinois, the facility is far enough from the hustle and hum of the city that hundreds of stars were visible in the night sky, and the only way to find a reliable cell phone signal was to hike into the field outside the retreat center.

2. A small sampling of lessons learned during the weekend:

* SCBWIers are a very talented group of writers and critiquers.
* Honor the process. A fair portion of the published writers in attendance studied the craft for years before winning their first contract.
* Remain stalwart and true to your characters, story and style.
* One story. Three readers. Three different opinions. Happens a lot in the industry. How this translates for the aspiring writer: don't give up. If your piece comes back "rejected" and you honestly believe it's "ready" for publication, send it out again. Someone will buy it or see enough spark in your writing to ask for revisions.
* A request for revisions isn't a rejection. It's a very good thing. It means you have hooked an editor long enough to interest him/her in your story.
* Each editor brings his or his own baggage to a piece of work, which in turn will affect his/her opinion of the piece.
* One editor's opinion is one editor's opinion.
* Never leave home (or sit butt in chair) without patience and peseverance tucked into your writer's toolbelt.
* Don't expect your first draft to win you a contract. This rarely ever happens. Only in the subsequent drafts will your true story be discovered, and even then your story may not be ready for submission.
* Don't burn bridges by sending your story to editors before it's ready.
* Don't give your story to the choir (family and friends) before mailing it to editors. Find people you trust--readers who know the craft, the genre and the industry--to give you an honest opinion.
* The process from interest on an editor's part to revisions to contract to publication is often years-long.
* When an editor asks for revisions, do them, but don't expect to be paid. No money changes hand until after the revisions are accepted, the editor wins approval from the Powers that Be and a contract is signed.
* Find a critique group and keep it close. Your writing buddies will be the ones to pick you up and dust you off when you and/or your characters take a tumble.

More later after our schedule settles down.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Amusing the Muse, part II

Attention fantasy writers! Looking for a cheap way to indulge your muse? Consider tuning in to ABC Family's newest show, the Middleman. Based on the graphic novels by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine, the hour-long show is smart, the dialogue snappy, and the characters memorable, and, more often than not, laugh out loud funny. The motto's a hoot, too: "Fighting evil so you don't have to."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Amusing the Muse

I'm more than a bit punchy these days thanks to the retreat weekend and a sicky at home, but my muse is conscious enough to appreciate this news:

Our oldest daughter won a new role at the Bristol Renaissance Faire this summer. Instead of returning as Bridget Manners, maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth I, she leaves the confines of the court for the streets of Bristol where she will play Maggie Pye, the cut-purse of Bristol. You go girl!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Words in the Woods, part one

Words in the Woods left my muse so energized and exhausted that by the time I rolled up to P's folk's house to collect S and E for the drive home, all I wanted to do was curl up on the sofa and sleep. I would have if Buffy, our golden retriever, wasn't waiting for us at home.

Before hitting the road, P's folks ordered up a fried chicken dinner from the Wedge Drive In, one of the local diners in town. This place is a story all on its own. Picture a typical greasy spoon, the kind you see in the movies, then place it in a double-wide trailer in the middle of corn country. No joke.

The food and conversation revived me well enough to face the three-hour drive home. Once there, we tossed the bags in the front hall, scrounged up some sort of dinner (I honestly don't remember what we found in the fridge), and crawled into bed.

Monday came too early. E boarded the bus to summer school on her old scooter because we forgot the key to the new one at the folks' house. E came home from school coughing and cranky. By the time dinner came around she was spiking a temperature requiring round the clocks meds to control. Yippee. Let's hear it for ear infections.

Stay tuned. I plan to post highlights from the retreat as soon as I reclaim enough brain cells to do so.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Laundry, Lawns, Resales and Mulberries

On the to-do list between now and tomorrow's writing retreat:

1. Laundry--started but not yet done. Packing it into suitcases as soon as it's folded. A few more loads left to do.

2. Lawn--day three of cutting the grass. On a good day, the job takes two hours. Unfortunately, between the church resale and prep for the upcoming writer's retreat, my available daylight time has been extremely limited. I managed to cut the top hill two days ago. The front yard and the low part of the hill the day before that. My hope is to finished the rest today. (If we wait until we get back, we'll need a thresher.)

3. Mulberries--Maybe all the rain we've been getting here in the Midwest does have a plus side. The mulberry trees along the creek on the way into town are brimming with fruit. E made sure to point them out as we walked to church to help out at the resale last night. In the next few days, the fruit should be ready for harvest. Since berry picking is one of E's favorite things to do, I'm certain she won't let me forget.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Today's Quotable Quote for Writers

"Nothing is impossible to a willing heart." John Heywood

Writer's Retreat Check-List

The Words in the Woods Retreat is fast approaching. I've so much left to do between now and Friday morning that I feel like my to-dos have to-dos. This and that for the rest of the week includes:

Packing—for me and for S & E who will be staying at Grandma and Grandpas house for the weekend while I go play with 50+ other children's book writers. The bags are already out and open. Packing as I wash/dry/fold. Can’t forget supplies for Jewel. Note to self: add service dog supplies and what not to the list.

Tweaking—my first-page prior to handing it in at registration. First pages will be read during two open mic sessions, one before lunch on Saturday, the other mid afternoon. The weekend's honored speakers--Holly Black, Barry Goldblatt, and Namrata Tripathi--will be in attendance. Kudos and hugs to my crit buddies for the advice and support they’ve offered as I fiddle and polish.

Finalizing—my synopsis which cannot exceed 50 words. Using the description found in a movie listing as a springboard template. Frustrating and satisfying the process of condensing down an entire novel into a couple or three sentences. Reminds me of my copywriting days.

Prepping--all the paperwork/reading materials/supplies/files I need in order to write while I’m there.

Critique Group--yeah, even though we're bunking together over the weekend, our face to face decided to meet, more for moral support and general rah-rah-ing before we leave Friday than for work-work. Well, I take that back. One of us--A--actually found time to send in a chapter for eye-balling. A are your ears burning? I sent in two versions of my first page for consideration, plus a little bit more to finish up the scene.

Targeted departure time—9 a.m. Friday, and counting.

Targeted arrival at Grandma and Grandpa’s—noon, as long as Mother Nature doesn’t hammer the water-logged Midwest with another flood or tornado.

Retreat registration opens—4:30

Book I plan to pack: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, a reread with an eye toward the craft.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Especially for Writers

Here's another quote to live by, especially for writers whose imaginations tend to work overtime:

Courage is the capacity to confront what can be imagined... Leo Rosten

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Words for the Muse to Write by

Next time your muse considers procrastination, flagellation, waddling in self-pity (or all of the above in the face of surmounting odds or flagging progress) consider this quote by Mark Twain:

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

This and That and Words in the Woods

1. E report: After her test last Wednesday, E stayed overnight at the hospital just as a precaution. She didn't sleep very well that night thanks to a colicky baby in the room next door. Thursday, she was so tired after she came home, she ate lunch, crawled into bed, giggled and slept until dinner time. A week later she's doing great, and relieved she won't need surgery any time soon.

2. Crit group report: J, A and I met today. The kids are out of school now; so between J's kids and mine (including E's service dog Jewel), the house was a bit crazed at times. Re my creative, I heard enough to know I'm still on the right track with my new revised opening scene. Assignment upon leaving: cut the scene down to one page by next Wednesday, setting the stage for the adventure to come. Sharpening my pencil.

3. Thinking about: the presentation for the ILA meeting in September, and that fact that J and I need to make decisions soon about what to say and how to say it re the teen writers group we host monthly at the Orland Public Library.

4. Getting excited about: the Words in the Woods retreat. Opted out of a critique from one of the guest speakers in order to take advantage of open mic in which a designated person will read first pages while the honored guests (editors/agents) will be in attendance. Haven't yet decided what "first page" to submit. I'd be lying if I said I felt no pressure about what to select.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


E did her angiogram at Children's today. So far so good. She was cranky after the general wore off, but improved enough through the day to eat a cheeseburger and smiley fries for dinner. The plan is to keep her overnight for observation, and to continue flushing her system. (A contrast dye was used so docs could take pics of the brain and kidneys.) As long as the evening's uneventful, E will be home by lunch time. Good news on the test: No new aneurysms to report, and existing ones look stable.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lessons from Mother Mallard, Part II

Mother Mallard has abandoned the nest. The incubation period passed over the weekend. The eggs look so perfect nestled there beneath the greens of the daffodils. What made Mother Mallard move on? Did she know from the beginning that the eggs were for practice? Or did she change her mind along the way because something didn't feel right?

Her actions feel similar to ones I've taken with my own work. For the sake of KM, I've tossed hundreds of pages and false starts. And like Mother Mallard, I've feathered my nest with characters only to abandon them later after I realized they didn't belong, no matter how witty their banter.

I can't always articulate why it's time to abandon a darling, but I usually know when. Call it intuition or the muse or both. I listen to the little voice inside and follow its lead. When I'm wrestling with a particular passage or a bit of prose, and I'm lucky enough to be deep inside the heart of the story at the time, a kind of knowing accompanies the process. Inside this space, entire hours go by in what feels like a few minute's time. Inside this knowing, I'm one with my characters, and know with certainty what their next move should be. It's a feeling similar to the one experienced when sculpting, sketching or painting. Burnt sienna feels right to add in one spot, carnelian red in another.

Inevitably during the creative process, there comes a point when I've muddied the paragraph, sculpture or piece of paper beyond fixing, and starting over is easier. I open a new file, scrape the canvas, or reach for a clean sheet of paper, and begin again. Maybe Mother Mallard decided to start over, too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Caging the Critic

Plagued by procrastination, perfectionism or both? Consider this Old English proverb as an effective way to cage your mugwump:

The shortest answer is doing.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Writing lessons from Mother Mallard

Last week on the way downstairs to give E her morning meds, I spied Mother Mallard standing on the wooden walkway near the front door. The sighting delighted me. It meant there's a good chance the eggs she laid earlier this month must be more than testers. Why else would she risk being chased by our two retrievers and tom cat?

Seeing her I felt a pang of envy, probably because I wish I had half her fortitude when it comes to my own work. How does she come by her faith? How does she know her little ones need her on the coldest nights? How can I have that same knowing that the ideas I place down on paper will someday give birth? Brings to mind a story from the Bible. The one about faith the size of a mustard seed. Talk about patience and perseverance.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Critique Groups, Angiograms, Choir concerts (and a Duck Sighting)

What do critique groups, choir concerts and angiograms have in common? They're but a small sampling of the events/activities competing with butt-in-chair time this month.

1. Critique group--Technically this activity doesn't compete with butt-in-chair time so much as inform it; but it bears mentioning because the three-plus hours we spend together twice monthly represents a considerable amount of time away from my work-in-progress. Re crit group, J, A and I met today, and I'm thrilled to report that after months of writing my characters into one corner after another as I experimented with various entries into KM, I finally won an enthusiastic thumbs up re my current approach! Next meeting, scheduled for two weeks from today, has been postponed for a week because of a heavy-duty medical test for my middle daughter E. (Hence #2.)

2. Angiogram for E--This upcoming test is a necessary evil in our quest to keep E on the road to recovery. Here's the backstory: In 2001, our middle daughter E suffered from ruptured brain anerysm. She was nine at the time. The event left her in a coma and unable to walk and talk. She defied all odds by learning to walk and talk again, but remains prone to aneurysms. We need regular pictures of her brain in order to check that no new problems areas have developed. The look-see is called a brain angiogram. The last time we did a test like this, we learned E needed surgery to prevent a rupture. My muse is less than thrilled with this upcoming test. Sitting butt in chair long enough to put in my two pages for the day has been a challenge. I didn't connect until today that maybe the upcoming test was to blame. Probably also explains why even with Jazzercise 4 times weekly to combat stress, I've been grinding my teeth at night.

3. Choir Concert--Amidst the stress of experimenting with KM and making a conscious effort not to worry about E's upcoming test (after all, it is what it is, and no amount of worrying will change the results), I've been actively embracing the inevitable concerts and awards ceremonies that come with the end of the school year. Last night was my youngest's choir concert. Tonight, she bridges from Junior Girl Scout to Cadet.

4. Duck Sighting--Spotted a female mallard standing on our walkway before butt-in-chair time yesterday morning. I take this as a good omen that the eggs she laid aren't testers. With a cat and two retrievers in the household, why else would she risk hanging around so close to the house?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Egg Watch

No ducklings yet. Still a bit early for the hatching. Haven't caught mama poking around the nest, but once in a while I hear quacking near the creek on the other side of the neighbor's yard. A bit of research has revealed that the females don't sit full-time on the nest until the eggs are near term. Hoping the eggs weren't testers (which I'm told happens quite often with new mothers.) If the eggs hatch, they should do so on or near Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Morning Pages Musings

After morning pages sessions lately, I've been reading Julia Cameron's book Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance, and journaling about it. A number of insights have emerged from my early morning writings. One I find intriguing--and humbling--is how connected my muse is to the ebb and flow of my family life. I shouldn't be surprised. Because I'm a writer mom, my butt in chair time is often dictated by my girls, their schedules, dramas and health. I do my share of grousing about how scarce uninterrupted creative time is as I pursue my art. Yet, I'm convinced that if I gave in to the urge to take a walkabout, my muse couldn't survive long. The truth is that ultimately, my life--with all its glorious ups (and downs)--informs my art.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Killer Bunnies, Golden Carrots and Amusing the Muse

Every now and again my mugwump lodges me in a hole I can't easily escape. I thrash around my story, writing my characters into dead ends until I remember that maybe all I need in order to summon the strength to climb out is amuse my muse. Lately, I've found inspiration in a most unlikely place: a wacky card game called Killer Bunnies, Quest for the Magic Carrot. Think cute little bunnies (most of them anyway) with flame throwers, asteroids, cabbages, and more, on a quest for the game-ending magic carrot. The game's more than a bit twisted. But the way I see it, if it appeals to my muse, I have to trust the process, right? :)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Look closely

Nestled beneath the protective canopy of these daffodils hides a most egg-cellent surprise:

A perfect nest.

Were it not for our next-door neighbor, who happened to spy Mother Mallard at work, we would have missed the clutch completely. Inspires this writer, and begs a question: how many treasures await discovery beneath the landscape of our fictional worlds? If the nest beneath the daffodils is any indication, a rich bounty might be found, if we take the time to seek it out. Re-visioning anyone?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hatching eggs and ideas

A wild mallard dug a nest between our daffodils yesterday. She laid three perfect eggs. S & E feel as if they've won the lottery. If all goes well, they will be proud aunties in about 28 days.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Writing What You Know

Write what you know. Time and again we hear this advice from editors and published authors. Makes sense because the more you know about a subject/experience the more specific you can be about its ins and outs and little quirks, providing details that create a rich and authentic story for your reader.

As a writer mom who's been playing nursemaid for far too long, I've had plenty of time to think about the relevance of this advice for a project I've had simmering for quite some time. One of the undercurrents of the proposed work-in-progress is the fact that the MC's sibling is chronically ill. Since I love and care for a child with special needs, makes sense to draw from my experience in order to breath life into my story.

Here's a sampling of what I know about being a writer mom to three active girls, one with significant special needs who insisted on getting sick again this week:

*Setting the alarm to keep track of giving the next med has become second nature to me.

*I can tell by the sound and type of cough when E's running a fever.

*I know the phone numbers of the bus company and school attendance office by heart.

*The truancy officer doesn't call anymore to ask why our daughter has missed so much of the school year.

*I know by the sound of the breathing treatment when it's complete. (A very useful skill when doing one in the middle of the night.)

*The gatekeepers at the doctor's office know us so well now that they put me right through to the physician after they hear E's name.

*Though I would never walk away from our situation, I can sympathize with those people in the world who don't have enough resources, family or friends to draw on in order to take care of themselves and their loved ones, and who, after months without hope of ever feeling "normal" again, might consider leaving rather than muscling through another day.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Writing Contests, Judging, and Learning the Craft

A fair amount of my uninterrupted time this week has been devoted to judging entries for the 2008 Four Seasons Writing Contest sponsored by Windy City Romance Writers prior to the announcement of winners at the Spring Fling Writers' Conference later this month.

Each entry must be assessed for presentation and mechanics, and strength of its craft in the following categories: hooks, setting, characterizations, plot, conflict, dialogue, narrative, pacing. Specific guidelines are given for critiquing each element. Judges are also expected to assign a score for overall impression, and to rate how likely he/she would be to read the entire manuscript, and purchase the book in the store if it were published.

The majority of the entries in my stack show promise, but need more revisions before they're ready for an editor's eye. Two are outstanding. I've already made a note of the titles in hopes of seeing the books on the shelf someday.

I'm also intrigued by the judging process because of how much it's informed my own writing. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Judging the entries feels very similar to the work we were required to do in the Vermont College Writing for Children MFA program.

I used to joke about the fact that I earned a degree for reading books, and while the statement wasn't totally accurate (reading was only part of the degree, and reading critically is a a lot harder than it sounds) there's wisdom in including the approach in the degree program. Learning to read critically not only taught me how to identify what works and what doesn't in a published piece of writing, it trained me how to read my own work with an editor's ear. It made me more confident about the critiques I give to my fellow critique group members. And it prepared me for judging writing contests like Four Seasons.

Friday, March 28, 2008

One Writer's Update: This, That and The Sweet Far Thing

Just When We Thought It Was Over
E's finishing up week four of illness, but at least there's an end in sight. After starting yet another round of antibiotics over Easter weekend, she's finally well enough to make it through the day without a nap. We visit the pulmonologist today to see what we should be doing to prevent another setback as we enter allergy season.

Teen Writer's Workshop
Teen Writer's group meets this afternoon. Today's topic is dialogue. The working title for the group exercise J&A have planned: Behind the Blanket. To illustrate the importance of including inner dialogue, action, and body language when writing dialogue we plan to pair two "volunteers" behind a blanket with instructions to read the lines from selected book passages without feeling, inflections, etc. Then we plan to drop the curtain and have them act out the scene with expression and tag lines and maybe even props.

On J's and my personal agenda: starting with today's session keep a master file about what worked and what didn't. Reference said file at a later date as we prep for our presentation about teen writer's workshops (and how to get one started at your library) at the Illinois Library Association conference in September.

Current Read: Libba Bray's The Sweet Far Thing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day Two and Counting

E returned to school for a half day yesterday. She came home wilted (who wouldn't after being home with the flu 2 1/2 weeks?), ate lunch and crawled into bed for the rest of the afternoon. Today was better. Though exhausted when I picked her up, E stayed up longer before needing to take a nap. Each day back is mini victory, bringing me that much closer to reclaiming my uninterrupted writing time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Return to Morning Pages

A year and a half ago, I began writing Morning Pages ala Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way.

The practice is simple. Journal three pages first thing each morning. Do not judge the words. Do not plan what you're going to say. Write without thinking, letting your heart speak through your pen. Punctuation is optional. So is form. Use the time to dump, vent, pout, praise, celebrate, plan. Go wherever your muse leads you. Write longer if you wish, but try to complete at least three pages. Do not stop until you are done. Then start your day.

When I first started Morning Pages, I was amazed at the clarity the simple exercise brought me. Each entry became a moving meditation. A way to ground me in the present and warm up my muse. Into my journal, I dumped my fears, worries, to-do lists, hopes, dreams, and duties for the day. The awesome part about this practice was that, once there, my worries, hopes, and dreams were content to wait for me on the page, rather than pratter on in my head while I worked.

For a variety of reasons--kids, illnesses, the life of a writer mom--I fell away from the practice. I didn't think I'd missed it until I began writing my pages again recently.

Not sure where the idea came from, but I bless it. After two and a half weeks of care giving and round-the-clock meds, I consider a return to Morning Pages one of the few good things that have come out of E's latest bout with illness.

Current read: Marked by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. (Began this thrilling must-read for vampire fans a few days ago. Would have finished it already if I wasn't so **** tired.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sending Up an SOS

Okay. So, we've been hunkered down with E since February 27th when she came home early from school coughing up a storm. Dr. S diagnosed an ear infection a couple days later on Leap Day. E started meds that evening. The fever responded quickly. The cough not so much.

Twice we've tried sending E back to school thinking she was on the mend. Both attempts failed. The exposure to the cold or the dry school environment or something else triggered horrible coughing fits that sent her home early both days.

I'm used to E's colds setting her back a long time, but not this long. This year, despite a regular routine of nebulizer treatments and heavy duty cough meds, she's not bouncing back as quickly.

Seeing as I'm sleep deprived (E hasn't slept through the night since this all began), there's probably something I'm missing. I put in a call with the doctor's nurse recently in hopes that we can brainstorm.

Writing report: Dribbles here and there when my muse allows.

Current read: Marked by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast, a recommendation from fellow critigue group member, A, and a must read for vampire fans.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Doing the Happy Dance

I'm in! I'm in! I'm in! I just received word that I made the short list for the Words in the Woods retreat! What a boost after the last of couple weeks with E. Etching the date on the calendar.

Plot Challenged? Read This

Some writers are blessed with the ability to plot their stories from beginning to end before sitting butt in chair for the hard work of writing. Others, like me, write by the seat of their pants, following an image or whisper of diaolgue in search of a character with a story to tell.

There's nothing wrong with either approach. One's process is one's process. But at some point, even the most intuitive writer must sift through the patchwork quilt of story she's been working on, and make decisions about plot.

This part of the revisioning process can be agonizing. The story one has been creating all this time with a writer's heart, must now be analyzed with an editor's eye.

To distance myself from my work when it's time to make a difficult decision, I leave my story behind for a day or two, sometimes longer, whatever it takes in order to read my work dispassionately. My critique group becomes even more indispensable. So do certain plotting techniques like the one discovered in this book by Debra Dixon.

Dixon's book is the first I've run into in a long time that demystifies plot for even the most plot challenged of writers. A big shout out to Dixon for articulating the subject so well, and to Windy City Romance Writers for keeping the book in their chapter library.

What a gem.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Book a Day Keeps the Doctor Away?

Next time you consider vegging in front of the TV or computer insteading of reading, consider this report from RealAge : reading builds and protects cognitive reserves which, according to one study, help provide a defense against environmental toxins.

E update: her fever broke, but she still has a wicked nasty cough. Poor thing's on day 10 of being sick.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Writer in the Twilight Zone

No posts in a while because E's sick. A flu bug of some sort hit her without warning mid last week. Operating on little or no sleep. Too little to make sense out of what my characters are trying to tell me. Hip deep in Motrin, Tylenol, inhalers and heavy duty cough syrup. Nearly rushed to the hospital end of last week after our arsenal of tried and true weapons vs. cold/flu bugs gave out. Thankfully, something changed during the night that delayed the trip. On Friday, the pediatrician said she's been swamped with kids with the flu. It's nasty this year. Doesn't seem to matter if the person got a vaccination. We're trying desperately to keep our heads above water here. I got something over the weekend. E's cough is still keeping her up at night, which means this sleep-deprived writer has now officially entered the Twilight Zone. I need a caffeine IV.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bonehead writer's stunt

Did I mention I broke my foot? The happy event happened a few weeks ago, the result of a bonehead writer's stunt.

My typical "doh" writer's moments usually occur while sitting butt in chair. Even after setting an alarm, I've been known to write my way through my kids' pick up times, forget meetings, and burn dinner.

The day I broke my foot I was fully engaged in my latest KM rewrite. After a particularly intense scene, I took a break to stretch my back and change over a load of laundry. I left the keyboard still deep inside my story. Big mistake. On the way downstairs with laundry basket in hand, I was too distracted by my characters to remember the snow boots at the bottom of the stairs. The boot went one way, my foot went the other. I heard the bone pop as I crashed to the floor.

The story Jane Resh Thomas shared with readers in the January issue of Edge of the Forest came to mind as I lay writhing at the base of the stairs. I can use this someday, I groaned. I can use this.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writer's Retreat in the Woods

Wowsza! My fingers and toes are crossed that my registration arrives in time to make the short list for this SCBWI-Illinois writer's retreat. Space is limited to 48 attendees.

The lucky few will have the chance to spend a weekend with:

Holly Black
Author of Spiderwick Chronicles (coming to theaters near you) and the young adult novels: Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside.

Barry Goldblatt
Agent Extraordinaire from BG Literary Company representing such authors as Holly Black and Libba Bray.

Namrata Tripathi
Editor from Hyperion Publishing, a house closed to unsolicited submissions, but open for a limited time for conference attendees.

Be still my writer's heart. It's conferences like this one that remind me why I'm proud to be a member of the SCBWI Illinois chapter.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Writer's Workshop at Edge of the Forest

Amidst the flurry of getting ready for and recovering from our whirlwind visit to LA, I neglected to give a much deserved shout out and thanks to author/teacher extraordinaire Jane Resh Thomas for chatting with me for the Day in the Life column in the January issue of Edge of the Forest. The article, which reads more like a writer's workshop than a straight up interview, is a sure bet if you're looking for inspiration and insights before sitting butt in chair.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Zac All That and More

E's wish came true and then some. After a string of mechanical difficulties delayed our flight two and half hours (and I seriously considered deplaning for fear of the gremlins), we arrived safely in LA at the height of rush hour Wednesday. Two plus hours later we found the hotel, where we learned that our visit with Zac would happen the very next day.

Thursday mid afternoon a limo arrived at the hotel in Studio City to take us to a house in the hills above Hollywood (the same neighborhood, we're told, where Leonardo DiCaprio lives) to meet Zac on the set of his new movie, 17.

While E and the three other Make a Wish children and their families waited for Zac to arrive on the set, P & I salivated over the house. Props had worked it over so it reflected the character who lived there. The place was like a museum to scifi/fantasy geeks, decked out in Stars Wars, Lord of the Rings and other scifi/fantasy paraphenalia. Darth Vadar greeted us in the foyer. Storm trooper helmets decorated the tops of book cases filled with collectible comics. A sword in a stone stood on the carpet near the front window. A two-handed broadsword hung near the front door. An elvish sword, Arwen's blade according to one of the crew, graced a window ledge in the kitchen. We studied as many as we could until Zac arrived.

The room went quiet when he entered. E twittered along with the rest of the Wish kids. Jewel perked up her ears, and thumped her tail. Zac broke the ice. "Hello everybody," he said. He was dressed in jeans and a red plaid shirt and white gym shoes. He started on the far side of the room, visiting with each child in a way that made it seem as if he had all the time in the world.

When it came time for Zac to greet E, he knelt on one knee, coming down to her level. Jewel, who'd been laying there in her red vest so nice and proper, couldn't resist Zac. She scooched to his side, tail thumping, and rolled over just so, so that he could scratch her stomach.

"Hey, there," he said with a smile, "whose pooch is this?"

E claimed the honor, and suddenly Jewel was in Zac's lap and licking his face with E grinning her butt off the whole time. Zac, who has dogs of his own (Australian shepherds, according to the tabloids), seemed to love the attention. With one hand scratching Jewel, he asked E about herself and offered to sign the back of her shirt (All my love, Zac). To say Zac made E's day would be an understatement. He's got a fan for life.

Later, after he worked his way around the room, taking time with siblings, too, he visited with E again. She gave him treats for his dogs. He fed a couple to Jewel then saved some in his pocket, saying he'd share it with his dog. If you see 17, watch for the scene when Zac's character wakes up in bed thinking his being 17 again was all a bad dream. That's the scene he shot after leaving the room with the treats in his pocket. We're fairly certain they were still in his pocket when he was filming. E, of course, is tickled by this bit of behind-the-scenes trivia.

More later after we decompress.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

E's Zac Efron Adventure a Page Turner in the Making

I can't help but keep a nervous eye on the weather as we prep for E's trip to LA tomorrow to meet Zac. The entire Chicago area is under a winter storm warning until midday Wednesday. I've been wishing for a Chicago winter like the ones I remember, the kind where the snow keeps falling and doesn't have a chance to thaw until spring. But not today. Today's timing is lousy. We're supposed to fly out of O'Hare mid morning tomorrow.

The parallel between life and fiction at this moment is unmistakable. Consider the set up: Enter E the day of her trip. She is layered in High School musical gear, her suitcase on her right side, her faithful service dog Jewel on her left. E stares out the window at the blowing snow. Jewel nudges E's hand, as if the pup knows her owner is worried. The camera cuts away to E's mom hunched over her laptop, Weather Underground confirming the worst snow storm of the New Year. Cue appropriate music (sympathetic yet tense). End the episode and cue the narrator. Will E get to the airport on time as the storm rages and traffic crawls along the expressways? Will the plane take off for LA at its designated time or be stranded in Chicago? And what about Zac? If the flight is postponed or canceled, will he wait for E to arrive?

Stay tuned. Same bat channel.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Three Days and Counting Until Make-a-Wish Trip to Meet Teen Idol Zac Efron

E was flying high today as she boarded the bus to school. Who wouldn't be in her position? Thinking back to my teen days I was nearly disfunctional after the WLS Radio van drove up to my girlfriend's house saying we'd won a chance to meet the Osmonds before a Chicago area concert. Even with a whole room of people and less than a minute's time to stand next to Donny and Marie and get picture proof that it all happened, I was in heaven. E will be one of only three Wish children to have an audience with her heartthrob. I can imagine how she must be feeling. 35 years later I still remember the way my heart raced when Donny kissed my cheek.

More later. Time to head to the vet with E's service dog to get her health certificate so she can fly.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

5 Days and Counting: Make a Wish Dream About to Come True

We received a call from Make a Wish Friday with great news. E is being granted her number one wish: an audience with teen heartthrob sensation Zac Efron. E's estatic. We're frantic. The limo to the airport picks us up first thing Wednesday morning. The meet and greet will take place Thursday or Friday on the set of Zac's new moive, 17. He co-stars with Matthew Perry and Michele Trachtenberg ( who played Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Exact timing will depend on where they are in the production schedule when next week comes along. Aaack! I need a clone.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Muckraking on the Writer's Front and Other Flotsam and Jetsam

On the home front: Our Friday visit to Shriner's Hospital went well. Felt like a luxury chatting with a physician on such relaxed terms, probably because we weren't in our usual "emergency" mode.

Bottom line: I like Dr. L. She engaged E in conversation, encouraged questions, and took the time we both needed to feel comfortable with her answers.

Another plus: She's on staff at Children's Memorial, which means she's an automatic member of E's team, ready to be called to bat if and when we need her.

On the writer's front: Heavy into revisions of my latest version of KM. Managed to keep writing a priority last week, despite E's illness for the majority of it, and her full-day's visit to Shriner's.

Number of pages written last week: 30-something. (I wish I could say all of them are editor ready. If I did, it'd be a lie.)

My process works something like this: write 30 pages, and, if my characters cooperate (and the planets align just right), get 6-10 critique group worthy pages out of it by the time I rake through the muck.

On today's agenda: Finish shoveling the car out of the drive and stop by the library to pick up books 8 and 9 of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Illness and Vampires in the Zone

E's been sick all week, but is finally (cross your fingers) on the mend. P's been ill since Saturday, with a sore throat and cough that won't budge. He refuses to admit he's sick enough to see a physician. Amazingly, through it all, I've managed to sit butt in chair and make progress through my latest draft of KM.

Shriner's Hospital for E today where we meet with a new neurologist. Somehow, we've managed without one for a couple of years, relying on the expertise of our neurosurgeon instead.

The fact that we're going at all is proof our family's finally left the bunker mentality we had for so many years. Instead of reacting to most everything in our lives, we've had the luxury in recent months of digging through reams and piles of projects we set aside to deal with "once things settle down."

Finding and making an appoinment with a new neurologist is one such task. Organizing my writing space and writing projects is another. Curious how the more organized I get on the outside, the more energized and oentered I feel on the inside, especially where my characters are concerned.

Current read:
Book 7 of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak vampire series. I started the books over Christmas break. Wow, no wonder these books are so popular with kids. This author can write!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Garlic, Holy Water, and O'Dark Thirty BIC Time

An unexpected call from the high school this morning cut my BIC time short. Turns out, E was running a fever and wilting in the nurse's office. I'd be crabby about this turn of events if I hadn't already done my two pages for the day during o'dark thirty BIC time . I need to remember this fact next time I'm tempted to reset the alarm clock after it rings at 5 a.m. By the way, word at the high school is that students and staff are dropping like flies. E's symptoms, like those of many of her classmates, include cough, fever, aches, sore throat, and general malaise. Did I mention the illness is similar to the one that broad-sided P this weekend? Time to dig trenches, find the quarantine tape, and stock up on vitamin C, garlic and holy water. Edited 7:10 p.m.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Be Still My Fantasy Writer's Heart: Tolkien Papers So Close Yet So Far

Growing up in the Chicago area (and cutting my fantasy teeth on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy), I had no idea the treasure trove that existed so close to home. Turns out the original manuscripts and multiple working drafts for Tolkien's most celebrated books, The Hobbit (1937), Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), as well as the original copy of the children's book Mr. Bliss (published in facsimile form in 1982) are holdings at Marquette University, a mere two hour's drive away. Be still my fantasy writer's heart.

Since our oldest returns to MU today after Christmas break, we made arrangements for the entire family to examine/admire/salivate over the collection after unloading at the dorm. Imagine our disappointment yesterday after receiving word that our appointment time would need to be rescheduled for another weekend.

Majorly bummed at this turn of events, as I admire Tolkien's skill and tenacity, and often joke that I'm on Tolkien's timeline of writing my own fantasy novel. (Word is Tolkien worked on his masterpiece 15 years before it was published.) Motivated to plan a return trip to Milwaukee soon in order to see the holdings.

Edited to add: Drove past Raynor Library (where the manuscripts are held) several times during the visit. Sigh. So close yet so far.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Writer On the Run

Reasons why I'm a bit crazed today:

1. Crit group today. Traveled to Monee this am to meet up with J & A for our biweekly get together. Ours is a working meeting, held mid morning through lunch time with each member getting a minimum of 45 minutes to hear what's working and what raised questions about her submission. Some of today's more lengthy discussion topics: ways to deepen a character's emotional throughline, techniques for strengthening a story opening, and approaches for reworking an entire scene. As always, I came away energized and inspired. And like always, I made notes on the way home, and tried not to drive myself off I-80 in the process.

2. O'dark thirty BIC time. This morning I dragged myself out of bed WAY TOO EARLY (the alarm went off at 5 am) to write in the dark. Did it without caffeine this time in order to keep myself as close to a dream/creative state as possible (a recommendation made by Jane Resh Thomas). Amazed by how close my characters were and by how much coherent work I managed to produce sans my usual mug of tea. Though I'm less than thrilled with how tired I am right now, I'm encouraged enough by the exercise to try it again tomorrow.

3. Preparing to attend a local Romance Writer's of America chapter meeting tonight. Looking forward to the topic: "Write More, Stress Less," because I always appreciate hearing how other writers honor their creative process. I'm also looking forward to networking. I've a been a card-carrying member of the group for a couple or three years (the monthly magazine alone is worth the annual membership fee), and I've attended several members only events. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time or energy to do much more than that locally. I hope to change my ways this year because the organization is truly dynamic, and I firmly believe it has alot to teach this children's book writer about networking, marketing, and self-promotion.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Writer's Resolutions for the New Year

Happy New Year. The beginning of 2008 would be incomplete without a new, improved set of writer's resolutions. Not only does stating them give them power, so does setting them in cyber stone. This year, I will:

1. Not should on myself. Worrying about how much I should have written or should be writing drains valuable creative energy. Instead of shoulding on myself when the time comes to commune with my characters, I resolve to channel negative energy into writing instead. (Note to self: even something as simple as writing notes on index cards counts.)

2. Sit but in chair daily. If this means adjusting my writing schedule so that every day is a Writing Experiment Day, so be it. Better stock up on the caffeine. Dragging myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to write this holiday season has been *lowers her head and scuffs her foot* a challenge. (Note to self: revisit point number one, and study point number three (after I've drafted it.))

3. Honor my process. Perhaps the biggest gift a writer can give him or herself is respect for how quickly his/her characters come together in a story worth telling. My head knows this truth thanks to my mentors at Vermont College. However, I have to be honest with myself. Some days are darker than others when it comes to my writing. Doesn't always need to be a rejection to trigger me. Sometimes good news does it. A colleague might win a contract, or finish a draft he/she started after me. I celebrate. I sincerely do, and then the doubt sets it, and I find myself wondering if I'll ever finish my story, and I seriously consider changing professions. This is where point number 4 comes in:

4. Ignore the monster. It's caged again--and gagged--after escaping it's confines over the holidays. Insidious creature. Sometimes days go by before I realize it's freed itself from its bonds again. It lurks in the shadows and feeds off my fear, becoming far too fat and comfortable before I realize it's escaped again. I captured it not too long ago. Even managed to put it on a diet. It's less than pleased with its new surroundings, but will need to get used to them. I'm in a place of power, and nothing my mugwump says or does will keep me from finishing my book this year.

5. Renew my commitment to my writer's group. Meeting with J and A every other week isn't just good for keeping my mugwump in check, it's necessary for my muse. *Raises cyber glass of the good stuff* Here's to fellowship, built-in deadlines, and the knowing we all share that together we are invincible against the mugwumps of the world.

6. Finalize (and submit) KM. Last year my muse would have scoffed at such a statement. This year, thanks to the hard work we did during Plotting the Novel (and afterward), we both know it will happen.

*Raises another cyber glass of the good stuff to fellow writers everywhere.* May you honor your process and find victory against your mugwumps. See you on the other side of 2008!