Thursday, February 28, 2013

To do a do-over or not to do a do-over...

 
This month’s Smack Dab topic has been on the idea of do-overs. As I’ve read over all of the great posts made in the last 28 days, I’ve noticed that I don’t have much to add (aside from agreement). Since I don’t want to just do a do-over on any of the numerous great do-over posts I was feeling a bit stuck. While being stuck I went online and looked up the definition of do-over on ‘dictionary.com’. When on the site I was informed that the next definition after do-over was do-rag. I clicked on it. On this entry I learned that the do (or doo) part of do-rag was a short slang version of Hairdo! This got me to thinking that the word do-over could also be thought of as a new slang version of the word comb-over. So, maybe my post should be about my thoughts on do-overs (and by that I mean comb-overs).
My thoughts: Never. I will never sport a do-over. If I ever start to bald I will just let my remaining hairs be lonely. Even if the ageing hipsters in my neighborhood decide (as they bald) that do-overs are ironic and thus worth sporting, I will never do a do-over. If I bald, I will wear my no-hair with pride and hope that if I ever get made fun of by a group of threatening children, God will send two bears to eat them up like he did for Elisha in the Old Testament. The question on to-do-a-do-over vs. not to-do-a-do-over is an easy one for me, at least until I am actually facing the hairy problem. The End.
Mike ‘currently hairy’ Townsend.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On doing your job (when you are a groundhog)


So, I’ve always wondered what Punxsutawney Phil thinks of Groundhog’s Day. 

Now I’m no expert on groundhogs—or Groundhog’s Day, for that matter—but I can imagine that most days Phil wakes up and goes about his normal groundhog business.  This probably involves breakfast of some sort.  I’m almost certain it involves a quick trip to the toilet.  And then it is off to work, doing whatever it is that groundhogs do to keep busy (digging and staring at stuff, according to Wikipedia).   
But every February 2nd, things are a little different.  Even before he has a chance to make his morning coffee (I lie.  Groundhogs don’t drink coffee—probably), Phil is rudely yanked from his burrow by a man in a top hat and held up in front of a crowd.  There is music, applause, and a crowd gathered for a celebration.  Then Phil is ordered to look for his shadow (which he probably doesn’t.  First of all, I doubt he can follow English language instructions, and secondly, he’s probably busy thinking about how he still needs to pee). 

It all seems fairly traumatic.  And since groundhogs don’t use calendars (probably), he’d never sure when it’s going to happen again.  And this is bad, because my two-minute internet-based education on groundhogs tell me that they are kind of paranoid little creatures to begin with.  So no one should be surprised that groundhogs are wrong about the arrival of spring 63% of the time.  After all, how could they possibly be good at their jobs when their working conditions are so stressful?

Sometimes I feel like finding the motivation to write is a lot like wrangling a recalcitrant, paranoid groundhog who desperately needs to pee. 

Most mornings I sit down at my desk, fire up my computer, put my fingers on the keyboard, remind myself that I have deadlines and ambitions, and that people counting on me and have expectations for my work, and that I must write vast amounts and write well in order to do my job.   Then I freeze up.  My motivation (quite sensibly) has burrowed deep into the earth and is digging an escape route to get away from me while I try to grab it by its furry ankles, drag it out into the sunshine, and tell it to get cracking.  This method—not unlike the method of getting weather predictions from a terrified woodland creature in front of a large and boisterous audience—fails to produce anything of use 63% of the time.

The lesson that I have to learn over and over again is that motivation runs when I chase it.  I have to coax it.  And coaxing it involves forgetting about all of the things that are external to writing (like deadlines, expectations, ambitions, etc.) and searching for that elusive state of mind where the story seems to write itself.

A state of mind that, if it were described as a place (because there is nothing I love more than stretching a metaphor well beyond its limits) might look an awful lot like a quiet wood—where a well-rested groundhog has just finished his morning coffee and is preparing to step outside to quietly check the weather.
Lizzie K. Foley (www.lizziekfoley.com) is new to Smack Dab in the Middle.  She is also the author of the middle grade novel REMARKABLE (Dial/Penguin, 2012)--a story about a deeply ordinary girl who has to save her extraordinary town with the help of a pair of criminally-minded twins, several pirates, the world's worst science fair project, and an elusive lake monster named Lucky.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Groundhog Day (Film Version*) Works for Me: February Theme

 I've learned over the years that many of the routines that keep me most productive, that nurture my creative spirit, are the ones that don't *look* like I'm writing at all. Sometimes it's difficult to explain exactly how they are a part of my writing process, and how they are necessary to my work. Today, I don't feel like explaining. I'd like to embrace them, celebrate them, and share a few of those routines with you, then invite you to share your own.

Walking
 As soon as I take those first few steps in the morning, the story thoughts come. Walking is of course beneficial in so many ways -- I started doing long morning walks as stress relief more than 20 years ago when my mother was very ill.  Today, along with working out any leftover inner "kinks" or anxieties from the night before, a morning walk almost assures greater productivity when I get my "butt in the chair." I bring a little notebook -- I might jot down a note or two along the way, or just murmur to myself (I can imagine how *that* looks!), I might just walk and enjoy the city silently; no matter what, my brain thinks of it as "work" time, and I might figure out a character's motivation, a few lines of dialogue, or even an entire scene. I can't pretend that I walk and then come home and an entire book just pours itself out like magic, but there is some preliminary real forward movement that happens during that time, and it's important.  Sometimes I can't get outside to walk, and I may just exercise at home instead--just some kind of whole-body physical movement helps, though those wonderful walks are the best.

Craft
 I would describe myself as an enthusiastic, if not particularly skilled or talented crafter. I've always found joy in making things, and I guess it's also always been connected to my literary life in some way--as a child, one of my motivations for learning to do many of the crafty things that I do was the concept of an "accomplished woman" in Jane Austen novels. When I was writing my first novel, I spent a large amount of time knitting, sewing, making toys, and just fooling around with materials. Last year, when I was feeling hopelessly stuck on my WIP, I thought back to those days, and realized that I had given up a lot of those habits because they were "hobbies", and not writing. I know that, when I'm feeling stuck or restless or distracted during the course of a writing period, it's a good idea for me to pick up some knitting, some embroidery, some clay, or even to sit at the piano for a few minutes, and work with it for a few minutes, to refocus and be rejuvenated. Much better than checking my email or doing some online "research." I give myself a time limit, and then give myself permission to fully enjoy whatever it is I'm doing -- to enjoy my work.

Twyla Tharp's THE CREATIVE HABIT is one of my favourites, and I believe that she is absolutely right in stressing how vital the development of a practice is, how important it is to be disciplined in any creative endeavor. I tell my students to "just write", and I know it sounds frustratingly simple.  But I remember that for me, "just writing" includes many strategies, tools, techniques, and pleasures. I include these times of physical movement and 'crafting' as a vital part of my work routines. They are inextricably linked, and I'm glad. What routines feed your work as well as your soul?


*Referring to this film.




Saturday, February 23, 2013

We're More than the Sum of our Brilliance and Blunders: February Theme by Dia Calhoun


When people reflect on their lives, they often say: “If I could, I’d do that differently.” 

Really?

Of course we should learn from our mistakes. But the danger comes from getting lost in regret, from not honoring the process of becoming who we are.  Regrets are the wispy strands we sweep over our bald spots to catalogue the blunders in our lives. If you’ve seen a comb over, you know that doesn’t work very well. Why? Because our bare and vulnerable spots are part of what makes us who we are. Without the blunders of our past, we would not have become who we are today. We’re much more than the sum of our brilliance and blunders. Take one thing away and who knows whether our lives would be better or worse, whether the person we have become would be better or worse.

So hold all of your past—both the blunders and the brilliance—with kindness for the person you were, and gratitude for the person you've become.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Shift of Mind and Heart: February Theme by Jen Cervantes

When I sold my first book, Tortilla Sun, I was swept away with editing, PR planning, conference presentations, book signings, and the blessings of awards and better reviews than I could have hoped for. With these blessings came something else: I felt compelled to write the next book which really translated to selling the next book. Unfortunately, this kept me far far away from the art of writing, from the creative joy I felt when I wrote Tortilla Sun. For the first couple of years afterward, I often said that I wished I could go back to that magical place of first book ignorance...that place where no critic was sitting on my shoulder, whispering the should’s and shouldnt’s. But I also said I could never go back, that I’d never know that place again. As time passed and I hit road block after road block with my writing, I realized I had it wrong. I could go back—I could rediscover that creative carefree space where story trumped everything else. Maybe the best part of all was realizing I had to go through lots of ups and downs, many rejections (even making it to acquisitions) before I understood that all that stuff was getting in the way and that selling the next book wasn’t nearly as important as taking the journey of writing it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Do Overs (February Theme) by Bob Krech

My editor told me it was the best thing I'd ever written. He had called me into New York. We sat at his desk. He told me I should get an agent to negotiate the contract because this book was important. Important! Yikes! We went out to lunch. I went out and got an agent that next week. He loved the book too! The agent negotiated the best contract I'd ever had.

My editor and I worked on the book for a year together, going back and forth on a regular basis, tightening, improving, deepening characters, rewriting complete scenes, complete chapters. After a year of this, he sent me an e-mail saying it was time to start thinking about cover art. We bounced ideas back and forth. I could picture it on the shelves. It was January. He said he thought it would be on the Fall list. Maybe Spring. They were discussing it. Timing was important. Then he called me one morning while I was at my desk at work. "Hey," he said. "No way to say this, but to say it. I've got some bad news."

There had been a change in management. The new publisher who had just come on was reading through all of the books getting ready to launch. She had read through my book. She had some--concerns. She passed the manuscript on to a few other editors to read. The consensus was that there were a lot of problems. No one liked the voice. The relationships among the characters were not believable. The subject matter was too sensitive. I voiced my objections. My editor said he had already made those same arguments. It didn't matter what we said or thought at this point. The book was not going to be published.

My agent went ballistic. He yelled at my editor. Then he reiterated the yelling to me. We were angry together. We would show them. We would bring this gem of an important book to some other publisher who would recognize it for what it was. He tried that for a year. With no takers. The important book sat. I told everyone I knew, the sad story of how the great, important book had almost been published, but ultimately rejected for reasons that made no sense. Finally I decided I would have to publish it myself. It was too important to just sit there. But first I would do a final super-tight edit. I would make it so good no one could ignore it.

As I got into my final, super-tight edit, some realizations slowly emerged. I had been away from the book long enough that I could see some things. They made me queasy. Like the voice. And how it sucked. And how the relationships did not ring true. I began to see the major changes I needed. Major, MAJOR changes. Like listening to the voice of a character who demanded to be part of the story and I had ignored and suppressed because I was too lazy. Like letting the main character be a guy instead of a girl like in the very first draft before I was convinced a girl as main character would attract more readers. There are plenty of other changes too and I am working on them right now.

The bottom line is, I am incredibly thankful for this unwanted do-over. It saved my butt. It's going to be a much, much better book. (Maybe even an important book. :)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Do-Over Virtual Visits (February Theme - Kristin Levine)

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I'm going to ask for help this month.  Because there is one thing that I keep trying and then wishing I could do over.  And that's virtual visits.
It sounds so easy.  If you don't have time to visit a school, do a visit via Skype or FaceTime.  But in reality, I often find them... kind of lacking.
First, there are the technical issues.  Despite the fact that I've learned to do a practice session beforehand, there is often something that happens the day of the visit.  The tech person who helped the day before isn't there.  The school's WiFi goes out.  The speakers suddenly don't work
Second, I have to admit, I find it hard to speak coherently when looking at a blurry image of a room full of children.  I can't see anyone well enough to tell if they are responding to what I have to say. The best set-up I ever had involved me looking at only one student at a time.  They could all see me on a big screen.  But even though I suggest this to teachers, it's not always the set-up they can make happen.
Finally, there is the issue of to charge or not to charge.  On the one hand, it feels presumptuous to ask for an honorarium.  It's only 20 minutes, right?  I don't even have to leave my house.  But when you factor in emails to set the visit up, time practicing and hiring a babysitter (nothing like your 3-year-old turning off Dora and announcing she has to go potty right in the middle of a Skype session), it doesn't seem so easy after all.
How do other authors handle virtual visits?  Are my expectations too high?  Is a certain amount of technical trouble to be expected?  What do teachers, librarians and students think makes a good virtual visit?
I'm going to continue doing online visits - but I could definitely use some suggestions and advice! 

Monday, February 18, 2013

“I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” February theme (Claudia Mills)


French author Colette is quoted as saying, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I don’t know how old she was when she said this – I hope it wasn’t a deathbed utterance – but I do know that my own biggest do-over yearning is not so much to do anything I did in my career, or my life, differently, but to have appreciated it more as I did it.

It’s so easy to feel ungrateful to the writing gods. Why didn’t they give me the gifts to write better books, say, an immortal classic or two? Why didn’t they make the world more appreciative of my books? I would give such a good Newbery acceptance speech, I would, I would! But when I have these greedy, grasping thoughts – and few writers escape them – I hear in my head the petulant voice of one of my writer friends who complains all the time about her writing career by moaning, “I’ve published twenty books, and look what it’s gotten me!” Her implied answer: not very much.

I want to say to her (and to myself, when I start to talk that way): Well, it got you the publication of twenty books, and most likely thousands of readers for those twenty books.  And more than that: it got you the writing of twenty books. My friend has had a wonderful life as a writer, if only she could realize it.

So have I. And like Colette, I wish I had realized it more deeply and fully along the way. I keep a list now of what I call “touchstone” moments from my writing career, times when I was most thrilled to be living the life of a writer. Almost none of them have to do with fame and fortune.  They include:

Writing in the bar of the Omni Netherland Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati while sipping a pomegranate martini while I was away at a conference for my day job.

Writing at the house of a librarian friend who is also a composer of hauntingly beautiful solo piano music. It was early morning, and she was playing softly on her piano as I lay in bed scribbling.

Writing in the tent during a family camping trip, with light from a miner’s headlamp strapped to my forehead.

Writing by the wood-burning stove at the Gold Hill General Store in the Colorado mountains with my writer friend Cat.

Writing while I sat on the Great Wall in China!

If I had my career to do over again, I’d savor and honor these touchstone moments even more, reminding myself over and over again: What a wonderful life you’re having!  You’ve been writing for several decades now, and look what it’s getting you!





Sunday, February 17, 2013

There Is No Undo Button On Awkward Moments (February Theme - Sarah Dooley)

When I was about four years old, I snuck out of Sunday School and crawled onto my mother's lap on her church pew, and when I sat up a while later, the pastor looked at me disapprovingly because I wasn't supposed to be there.

At eight, I accidentally spilled a family secret in front of someone who wasn't supposed to know. Even as I spoke, I could hear myself saying those forbidden words, but by then, I was committed to the sentence, and I couldn't figure out how to stop or redirect in time to save myself. My sisters stared at me in irritated disappointment.

When I was eleven, I got angry at the confusing wording of a question on my science test, and I used the space provided to tell my teacher exactly what was wrong with his test -- and his class -- and school in general. When he handed the test back, he was laughing, not unkindly, but laughing nonetheless.

While editing my high school newspaper, I accidentally changed one letter in a baseball player's last name on the sports page - turning the word from his last name into the name of my horse, who was apparently always on my mind.

In college, while trying to impress my crush, I managed to drop my coffee on myself and then fall down the stairs.

All of this is by way of saying -- I do not forgive myself easily when I feel that I've behaved foolishly. There are moments that retain their cringe value for years after.

Ordinarily, those moments turn into a sort of Lord Voldemort of unpleasant memories -- they must never be named or spoken of again.

But in October, I met my agent and editor for the first time.

The entire experience was wonderful.

It was also terrible. I am a very shy, anxious person. I don't do well in crowds, or in cities, or with strangers, or in fancy restaurants. Good heavens, here I was, supposed to manage all four at once! Suffice it to say, I was not at my most eloquent.

Ordinarily, that event would go on my list of Things To Pretend Never Happened. But I don't want to forget meeting these wonderful people I get to work with! I want to be able to remember the conversation we had, and I want that memory to be cringe-free.

So the only option left to me is to accept that I am me -- a fidgety four-year-old, an indignant eleven-year-old, a distracted teenager, a klutzy college kid, a woman who doesn't know restaurant etiquette -- and that I am who my agent and editor wanted to meet, not some more graceful yet less sincere version of myself.

I am also the me who writes books, and I can't help but think that the reason I am able to write from the perspective of an awkward pre-teen is because I so vividly remember how that feels. If that's the case -- if my characters come from an awkwardness that I can't seem to outgrow -- then I definitely don't want a do-over, and I don't want to forget. I want to remember, and write it down. Like everything else in life.

In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, that whole dropping my coffee and falling down the stairs thing? That has got to go in a story!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

February Theme: Do-Overs (Stephanie Burgis)

OK, here's a confession: when I first sat down to try to figure this month's question out - which one moment in publishing I wished I could do-over - I almost couldn't do it. Trust me, this was not because my career progression has been flawless! (Hahahaha. No.) It was because I felt absolutely overwhelmed for choice. There were too many moments I wished I could erase forever!

Thank goodness most people I've met in publishing, whether they're writers, agents, editors or anyone else, tend to be good people who love books and who are willing to forgive new writers for making rookie mistakes. I've had generous, experienced writers answer my questions, give me good advice - and, better yet, forgive me when, early on, I did things that were just downright awkward or unprofessional.

(I still cringe when I remember asking one wonderful, experienced writer, at a particularly low point many years ago, if she could please refer me to a publisher who was a personal friend of hers. For those of you who haven't come across this issue yet - seriously, just DON'T do it! If a writer wants to refer you to an agent or a publisher they know, then they'll offer to do that without any prompting. You won't have to ask! If they don't want to, though...well, then you've just put both of you into an intensely awkward situation by asking them that favor. They'll feel rotten, embarrassed and uncomfortable at having to say no to you; you'll feel, if you're anything like me, about as tall as a slug no matter how kindly and gently they turn you down. Don't make that mistake! Learn from my moment of Cringe!)

I've tried to learn from all of my mistakes, but of course I'll just keep making more (and learning from them, I hope) as I go along. Most of all, though, when I look back at the last several years, I wish I could do-over the months I spent flailing between writing projects, stuck not because I didn't secretly know which one I wanted to write...but because I felt so wracked by insecurity, panicked by sales numbers that were out of my control, and my own fear of how badly I could fail if I trusted my own instincts.

If I could take all the hours, weeks, and months I'd spent angsting over whether I was good enough/ whether I was doing the right, the smartest thing, and re-do that time to spend it writing instead...

Well, honestly, I'd be a lot happier and I wouldn't have missed out at all. (Especially because the inevitable answer to all of my angst has always, always been: Just write what feels right and ignore the rest. Because really, what else can any of us do?)

Maybe the extra books or stories I might have written in that time would have sold; maybe they wouldn't. But it's always better to spend time writing than spend the same time worrying about writing.

And now I'm going to try to remember my own good advice...but if I fall down on it, I won't waste time yelling at myself for it.

I hope.

♥     ♥     ♥     ♥      ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥     ♥
             A SWEETHEART OF A CONTEST!
Are you a writer? Librarian? Avid reader? Then be sure to get in on the Share the Love giveaway from Online Author Visits. You could win a trio of books for yourself and a collection of six books for your favorite library! Some of our own past and present Smack Dab authors are members of O.A.V. and have books featured in the contest, including Dia Calhoun, Joan Holub, Suzanne Williams, and Trudi Trueit. Dia is generously giving away an ARC of her upcoming novel, After the River the Sun!

The contest runs through February 24, 2013, so click on over to Online Author Visits to enter. While you're there you can learn more about hosting a virtual visit in your school or library with one of these talented writers!

Good luck!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Enough With The Worrying by Tamera Will Wissinger (February Theme)



Last month for our January marketing theme I wrote about overcoming my fear of Twitter. (The link is at the bottom if you'd like to see it.) And for this month’s theme of Groundhog Day-style do overs, I was planning to write about more social media anxieties, but if I am to be totally honest, my fears and doubts run deeper than a website, a blog, a Facebook page, or a Twitter account. They run all the way to the heart of my writing and what it means to be a successful children's author. As in, "Who do you think you're fooling?” and, "What if your work never reaches the hands and hearts of children?" Ugly, unproductive thoughts that make my fear of Twitter seem quaint.

If I had a chance for a do-over, it would be to go back and tell myself this: Enough with all of this worrying. Stop. It’s getting in your way and robbing you of joy.

For me, it’s the best, most freeing advice, if only I would take it. Even though I like to think of myself as an optimist, I also know my unhelpful tendencies, and worrying is one of them. And at times it does get in my way in the form of lack of forward movement and productivity. Over the years I’ve come up with a few tricks that help keep me moving forward, or in the immortal words of Ellen DeGeneres as Dory from Finding Nemo: "Just keep swimming."


Here is how I “just keep swimming” as a way to stop myself from worrying:
  1. Being Productive and writing regularly.
  2. Being Connected by joining the real world of other writers, family and friends.
  3. Finding Resources to help me succeed, including writing teachers and critique partners.
  4. Thinking Positively by redirecting my unproductive thoughts. (More simply: Fake it ‘til you make it.)
  5. Appealing To A Higher Power that assures me: faith trumps fear.
I’m sure there are other things that I could have done, or can still do, but this list is a good start and gives me the ability to control those things that are within my power to control. The bottom line is this: No amount of worrying will change any outcome. What I do, say, or think, though, has real consequences and results. And while I can wonder (and worry) about how things may have been different if I had been more productive and less worried in the past, well, that wouldn’t be productive. I can only look forward and try to do better.

I still struggle with writer’s worries, even though my first book releases in a few weeks. As my career evolves, though, my worries are also evolving. But – being aware is a wonderful thing. I’m taking this opportunity to tell future me: Enough with all of this worrying. There is so much goodness and joy in store and you have work to do; don’t let it be clouded by your worries.

In close, here is one final trick that keeps me moving in a more positive direction if worry takes hold – I listen to music. There is an anthem for every age on this theme, from the 1940’s ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, to the 1980’s DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY written and performed by Bobby McFerrin. My current favorite anti-worry anthem is HOME written by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden, performed by Phillip Phillips. These lyrics (forgiving the word usage, sentence structure, and off rhyme) snap me right out of worry mode:

Settle down it’ll all be clear.
Don’t pay no mind to the demons they fill you with fear.
The trouble – it might drag you down.
If you get lost you can always be found.
Just know you're not alone...

You can watch and listen to it here:


There, don't you feel better already? I know I do! Here’s wishing you a worry-free Happy Valentine's Writing Day!!

As promised, for the link to my Twitterphobe article, click here.

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Tamera's first book, GONE FISHING: A Novel In Verse, arrives from Houghton Mifflin Books For Children on March 5, 2013. Online, you can find Tamera here: WebsiteGoodreadsTwitter, or Facebook.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Making up for Lost Time (February Theme: Groundhog Day) by Tracy Barrett

If I could redo anything about my writing career, it would be to trust myself earlier.

I write both fiction and nonfiction, but it took me a while to come to fiction. I had always been told I was a good writer, and I had proven that I could do research by writing a doctoral dissertation on a medieval poet that you never heard of (Cecco Angiolieri—told you!), so I thought nonfiction was a good fit.

The great thing about nonfiction is that the story is already there, and I didn’t have faith in my abilities as a story-teller. My father was the family story-teller, not me. My brother and sister and I (and our mother) looked forward to long car rides so we could catch up on the doings of Hubert the Hostile Huron, Doris the Delightful Dolphin, the monkeys Inot and Nad, and spoiled brat Abigail Fortescue Shtump.

Paradoxically, being a voracious reader discouraged me from writing. I didn’t think that I could come up with interesting characters, a compelling plot, or anything else that makes a good novel, like my favorites, Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Mrs. Mike. It didn’t occur to me that E. B. White couldn’t have written The Phantom Tollbooth either, that Norton Juster couldn’t have written Mrs. Mike, that the Freedmans couldn’t have written Charlotte’s Web. I thought that those writers could do anything.

It wasn’t until I was doing research for some encyclopedia articles and stumbled upon an intriguing character named Anna Comnena that I felt the urge to create a story. I wrote an imagined chapter of Anna’s memoir and read it to my critique group. They asked, “What happened next?” so I had to write the next chapter. Chapter by chapter, meeting by meeting, I wrote my first novel

I’ve now published a total of ten nonfiction books and nine novels (negotiations on number ten are underway!). I wish that I had been able to trust that although Wilbur, Milo, and Katherine Mary O’Fallon, not to mention Hubert and Doris, were characters I could never re-create, I could imagine characters equally as compelling. I don’t need to write about a spider going into the advertising business or a pun-filled trip to imagined lands or finding love and a life in the Yukon. I have my own characters and my own stories, and I know I would have had fun exploring them.

So last year I quit my day job and I’m now a full-time writer. I’m working on a nonfiction book and have three novels in various stages of completion. I can’t go back and relive those days, but I can make up for lost time. 


Monday, February 11, 2013

On Not Looking Back, Sort Of (February Theme from Jody Feldman)

There’s an earlier scene in the 2003 version of The Italian Job where Charlize Theron’s character Stella cracks a safe for her legitimate, insurance company employer and is asked, “Don’t you want to see what’s inside?” Her reply? “I never look inside.”

As I pondered this post, I kept coming back to Stella’s, shall we call it, wisdom, perhaps? She does the job, she knows she’s done it well, she walks away, and she doesn’t look back. Maybe there is something to be learned from that.

I don’t know how many times I’ve cringed over elements I might have included (or excluded) in my published books—scenes I could have switched out, dialogue I could have sharpened, characters I could have brought to life more fully and with more nuance. But unlike Stella who won’t own the contents of those safes, I must own up to the contents of mine. And though I don’t like the fact that I can’t go back and change anything about my work once it hits the bookstores, I have to accept it.

During school visits, I am sometimes asked  to revisit those regrets. A student will raise his or her hand wondering if there’s anything I wish I’d done differently in my books. In my head I’m, thinking, “Oh, you sweet thing. You don’t even know what you’ve asked.”

I give my stock answer about why I wished I’d had the contestants wear matching Gollywhopper Games t-shirts. But if the students wanted to listen for hours I could bore them with details—of struggles to move the people and places and scenes from my mind into a more fully realized version in print, of writing so there will be no regret when that book goes to press.

At some point, there are no do-overs in publishing. It’s time to release those words into the world, to move on. But for me at least, my human nature makes me glance back into that safe from time to time. Maybe that’s what propels us to strive to be more careful next time. To pause and make sure our words and sentences, our paragraphs and chapters convey just enough detail to portray the facts and feelings as we, in perfect form, want to portion them out. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

February Theme: Do-overs vs. The Best Advice Ever
By Marcia Thornton Jones
  
Do-overs. This notion of ‘if-only’ ranks right up there with daydreams attached to every lottery ticket I buy. If only I could jump in the way-back machine, visit the past, and do things differently…

This should be an easy post since I’ve made my share of mistakes and found myself in the midst of plenty of uncomfortable situations. Surely I’d want to do them over, right? One experience pops immediately to mind; an experience that happened a long time ago when I was on tour for the first series I co-authored with Debbie Dadey: “The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids”.


Scholastic had us hopping across the country visiting bookstores, schools, radio, and TV stations. Every day we flew into a new city, were met by a ‘handler’, and then whisked off for an appearance. One such event was a live television talk show.

Sitting there, facing the interviewer with cameras rolling, I was ready to answer all the standard questions: how I got started in writing, where I got ideas, how I developed plot, the importance of children’s literature, how I juggled writing with a teaching career. What I wasn’t prepared for was when the interviewer turned from the camera, faced me, and asked, “So, are you rich now?”

My response was to stammer and stutter as I tried to compose an appropriate answer. I think I said something about being able to pay my bills and having plenty to eat. After that the interviewer never got around to talking about the books or writing, and I struggled to keep up with his line of questioning. After we left the television station the handler didn’t throw any punches. She was professional but blunt. I had blown the interview.

It seems like that would be the perfect do-over moment, right? Except for one thing. If I could really go back in time and erase that moment I would miss out on the next thing she said.

"Be prepared with three key points you want to make before going into any situation. Then, no matter what the interviewer asks, make your points. You can start with the phrase, ‘That’s a great question, but what’s really important to me is…'”
 
I was embarrassed that day, but my red cheeks and the sick feeling in my stomach eventually faded. What is ever-lasting is her one tidbit of advice that I’ve used over and over and over again. Try it. It works. And not just for interviews. No matter what the situation or setting you can redirect a conversation with a variation of that one little phrase. “That’s an interesting point, but what’s really important to me is…”

Sure, sometimes I'm tempted to jump down that would-a, could-a, should-a rabbit hole, but that sort of wishing game tends to land me in the world of remorse, regret, humiliation, anger, and depression. The reality is I can’t change what was. So while the notion of do-overs is an interesting one, what’s really important to me is that I focus on lessons learned and apply them to today, tomorrow, and the day after that.

(Although, honestly, I do wish I hadn’t eaten that huge piece of cheesecake the other night…but that’s another story…)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

February Theme: Groundhog Day by Platte F Clark


In doing a little research (Wikipedia) on Punxsutawney Phil, the weather soothsaying rodent (yep, he’s a rodent), it turns out he rarely sees his shadow when he comes out to do his thing—only predicting an early spring 13.8% of the time. 



Unfortunately for Phil, since 1887 his predictions have been correct only 39% of the time, a somewhat statically worse record than if he’d stayed in his hole and flipped a coin. More importantly, just how old is he anyway? Someone should look into that.

Being new to this game (my first book “Bad Unicorn” comes out in April) I don’t have a lot of career lessons learned—I could lament losing two ARCs to a fellow author who agreed to blurb my book and then didn’t, but in the words of my teenage daughter, “meh.”

Upon reflection, however, I think our friend Punxsutawney Phil illustrates an important point: no matter how many times you crawl out of your hole and try and do some good, you’re probably going to fail more often than not. More rejection letters in the query pile; more “I just didn’t fall in love with it,” notations from passing editors; more negative reviews than you feel is entirely necessary; more people passing your signing table than stopping, and the list goes on. But that doesn’t stop our shadow hunting rodent friend—he gives it his best and sometimes, serendipitously, he gets it right. And people don’t gather in the cold every year because he’s statistically more likely than the weather channel to offer accurate climate prognostications. People come out because he makes them feel good. And perhaps for the hot chocolate, but more importantly because he makes them feel good. I’m 39% certain on that point.

So write something that makes someone feel good. Nobody will remember how many failures happened along the way. And when it’s finished, you can at least say you’ve done as well as a dirt covered rodent living in a Pennsylvania hole—and that’s something.