Sunday, August 23, 2015


Sometimes life brings with it sweet moments where all the different facets of our existence come together in lovely, unexpected ways.

Yesterday afternoon I was babysitting for Kataleya while her parents had a movie date. Addicted as I am to progress, I decided to take Kat with me to the local branch of the public library to pick up a book I had on hold: the YA novel Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I had wanted to read it, anyway, as I had already read and enjoyed her Eleanor and Park, but now I actually needed to read it, as I've been asked to review an article on girl writers in Fangirl and Little Women, submitted to a children's literature journal. How delightful to have a double reason to spend an hour at the library: play time for Kat and Mimsie, and another item crossed off my long to-do list.

At the library, Kat was busy playing in the children's area, thick stubs of chalk clutched in each hand for scribbling on the chalk table, as I chatted with the parents of another little boy playing there as well. A mother and her two daughters approached us: "Excuse us for interrupting, but are you. . . Claudia Mills?" I spied a copy of my Kelsey Green, Reading Green in the huge batch of books they were preparing to check out.

Why, yes, I am Claudia Mills. And what is nicer than to encounter eager readers of my books? It turns out that Kelsey was being checked out for the younger sister; the older one had already read it, as well as Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and now had Izzy Barr, Running Star on hold for a future library checkout. Her mother recognized me because they read my blog - this blog! She had seen the picture of me by the world's biggest ball of twine. She's the kind of mom who not only takes her girls to the library every week for two bulging shopping bags filled with books, but devours author blogs as well to immerse them fully in the world of children's literature.

I told my young fan about my forthcoming Nora Notebooks series, mentioning the launch title, The Trouble with Ants, which tells of Nora's enthusiasm for her ant farm. "Nora, of the Mason Dixon books? she asked. Yes! I hugged her, overcome with love for someone who had read my books so closely and remembered them so well.

The parents of the first adorable little boy joined in the conversation. That dad is a third grade teacher, who now plans to look for my books to share with his students.

So as I was there at the library to check out Fangirl, I met my own young fangirl, and her wonderful family, and gained an opportunity to connect with yet more kids who might become future fangirls and fanboys. I ask you: What could be more perfect than that?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Act Three, One Year Later

Today is my birthday.

Last year my birthday launched what I've been calling Act III, the last and best act of my life. I saw the birthday, my big 6-0, as a major life milestone. That same year I took early retirement, after 22 years, from my job as a professor in the philosophy department of the University of Colorado, irrevocably surrendering my tenure in a satisfying bridge-burning way. I became a grandmother: my grandmother name is Mimsie, and eighteen-month-old Kataleya and I are each others' most beloved companions. I published my 50th children's book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz. I was clearly at a watershed moment in my life.

Now a year has passed. Act III so far has been lovely, but not what I thought it would be. So, herewith, some birthday reflections.

Act III hasn't really turned out to be all that different from Act II. I woke up on my birthday last year, and, well, I was still the same person. Maybe this should have been less of a surprise than it was. But I somehow had envisioned myself now leaping out of bed to exercise with hand weights, standing on one foot for minutes at a time to enhance my sense of balance, writing some new kind of book different from anything I'd ever written before (more, say, the kind of book that would win the National Book Award), and using my newly empty days for what Brenda Ueland calls "moodling" - long, slow reflection that leads to big, deep ideas.

None of those things happened. I did the hand weights for two days and then lost interest. Ditto for standing on one foot, though I know that this is the single most crucial thing I can do to maintain my quality of life as I age. Falls killed my mother, and I've already had several, including one that led to a broken foot with a most irritating period of convalescence. Okay, memo to self: this year I really truly am going to stand on one foot at a time for a full two minutes every single day!

I also found that I'm not much for moodling. What I like is to be busy, busy, busy. Maybe this is a failing in me, a sign that in some subconscious way I need to distract myself continually from meditation on life's woes? Maybe it's fear of tackling the unknown in a way that I would do better to push on through? In any case, I feel restless and blue after days where I don't have anything concrete to show for myself. I want to have pages written (preferably on a book already under contract, with a pressing deadline). I want to advise writing mentees (preferably lots of them), review articles for journals, design courses to teach, even grade papers (giving myself credit for each batch of five graded). I'm addicted to visible, tangible signs of progress. I just am.

So within a month of my Act III-launching birthday, I surprised myself by signing up to teach again, heading back to Indiana for one more sweet semester at DePauw this past spring, and now securing myself a teaching appointment there for this coming spring as well, where I'll be teaching three courses, including two that I've never taught before, and one that nobody has ever taught before, which I invented myself: an honors scholar course on "The Ethics of Story."

I feel my usual guilt at leaving my family for so long to sojourn elsewhere. How Tanky the little dog will miss me, his champion walker! How Kataleya will stand at the gate at the bottom of the stairs and cry for Mimsie! My heart breaks already just thinking about it. And yet. . . I'm just someone who thrives on time away from home, just as I thrive on time here immersed in the heart of my loving family. I like to be here. But I also like to be there. And so I'm trying to arrange a life where I have both.

One year in, Act III has brought some (perhaps rueful) self-recognition. I yam what I yam. And yet. . . I still feel tingly with a sense of possibility, and a twinge of envy, when friends radically upend their entire existence, as when a DePauw librarian friend suddenly moved her entire family permanently (well, permanently for now) to New Zealand, and an author/illustrator friend decided to get an MFA at the University of Edinburgh, selling her house and starting all over again in a foreign land. Something in me can't stop reading websites about retiring in Ecuador or Estonia.

But for now: this is my life, part in Colorado, part in Indiana, part with my family, part by myself a thousand miles away, teaching the courses I like to teach, writing the books I like to write, being who I am in the way that I'm used to being. But I AM going to start standing on one foot for two minutes a day!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two Writers on the Road

I'm home from a girlfriend road trip to Branson, Missouri, with my friend Leslie, a trip filled with madcap, picaresque adventures. Well, a trip filled with the madcap, picaresque adventures that Leslie is dreaming up for the characters in her novel-in-progress. For this was a research trip, and I was invited to tag along with her: her story takes place during a girlfriend road trip, and what better girlfriend to share a practice trip than a fellow writer?

I can't reveal the details of Leslie's book, but she planned the whole itinerary with possible plot points in mind. So we needed to spend the night in Cawker City, Kansas, where we saw the world's largest ball of twine.
We were required to attend a comedy hypnosis show (what secret might a character reveal under hypnosis?), as well as other popular Branson shows such as Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede and male quartet Pierce Arrow (which had a truly great standup comic). We made a literary pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder's farm at Rocky Ridge.
For research purposes we visited some sites off the usual tourist itinerary, such as the local jail and a casino where a key scene may be set. On the way home, we found ourselves 650 feet below ground in a salt mine.
My role in the trip was just to be a companion and fellow brainstormer, so I gave my plotting muscles a great workout, as Leslie is a master plotter and inspired me to new levels of comic complexity.

I was also hoping that along the way I might stumble upon the seed that could grow into my own next book, as currently I'm in that uneasy, stressful time of groping toward The Next Idea.

I didn't find one. At least I don't think I did. But if a future book should call for a scene at the world's largest ball of twine, or involve a character's obsession with Little House on the Prairie, or benefit from familiarity with the mining of salt, I'm ready. I tried to pay extra attention to the children we saw on on the trip, monitoring their moments of joy or discomfort at all they were experiencing.

A new idea will come. It always does, enriched by all the humdrum - and wonderfully bizarre- things we do as we wait for the well to fill up again. This past week mine filled up mightily.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Writing versus Rewriting

Most of my author friends say that revision is by far their favorite part of the writing process. They have to force themselves to confront that initial blank page and write that inevitably bad first draft in order to get to the real joy of writing, which comes in revision. I took an online writing course a few years ago from writing guru Denis Foley. Among his many memorable aphorisms was that the writing process has three stages: 1) think it up; 2) write it up;  3) fix it up. He claimed that the vast majority of a writer's time should be devoted to #1 and #3, with #2 done as quickly as possible.

I'm trying to sort out my own stance toward (initial) writing versus (repeated sessions of ) rewriting. I find the joy that comes in writing to be more simple and direct; rewriting brings more exhilaration, but also more disappointment and exhaustion.

So here is my own personal balance sheet of comparisons:

1. I can write for only an hour a day; I can rewrite for as many hours a day as I can sit at the computer, dragged away only by competing life obligations or mental/physical fatigue. I feel completely satisfied by my hour a day as I create the story for the first time; I need time away to allow what I've written to settle, to allow the creative well to refill. But with revision, at least once I have my plan for revision in place, I just want to do more, more, MORE.

2. With the initial writing, I have a more transparent and unmediated connection with my characters. I feel as if I hear them talking and just write down what they say. Actually, that isn't quite true. That makes it sound as if I hear them talking first and THEN write down what they say. Instead, it's more that they talk through my pen, that as my pen flies across the page I'm giving voice to these characters, discovering what they are doing and how they are reacting to what other people have done. Intellect plays little role. I'm a medium at a seance.

Revision for me is much more intellectual. It involves considerable analysis: this scene isn't working - why? - how can it be fixed? My editor said my main character was unlikeable (ouch!) - what can I do to tone down her unlikeable features and let the reader see her more loveable side? What scene can I add to develop a currently underdeveloped subplot?

3. With the initial writing, I don't see what I'm writing as bad AT ALL. I think it's wonderful. In the act of creation I believe that this truly is going to be my best book EVER. But I revise in the wake of extensive critique from my writing group and editor. So I already know that the book as written is deeply flawed. Of course, I can fix at least some of these flaws. That's where the exhilaration comes in: look how much better it is!! Look!!!! It may not be - what's the word - good - but wow, is it better!

But then the despair haunts me: is better good enough? For my current work-in-progress, the one I spent most of July revising, my editor sent me, two days ago, a four-word assessment over email: "It is much better." Then in the extensive editorial letter that followed, she added a fifth word: "It is much, much better." But when the book is published, readers will not have the opportunity to compare it to its earlier drafts and say, "Wow, can that woman revise!" They'll just read it and give it a three-out-of-five-star review on Goodreads: Ehh.

4) So with revision, a certain fatigue and weariness begin to overcome me. It takes so many drafts to make it "better."And then all you get is . . . "better." For me, first drafts are written in a pre-dawn dream, spurred by hope that THIS will be my best book yet. Revision takes place in the unforgiving light of day. Nope, probably not my best book. Just a better book than it was before. And then, as I send off yet another round of revisions to my wonderful, insightful, demanding, amazing editor, I think, "Well, maybe the NEXT book. . . ." And I begin to yearn to feel my fingers racing across the page again, clutching my beloved Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen, making the hope-driven magic take place anew.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Revision: How Many Crititiquers Spoil the Book?

I'm emerging from an intensive round of revisions on my middle-grade-novel-in-progress. I truly don't think I've ever worked harder in my life, though admittedly, as an hour-a-day writer, it doesn't take much for me to exceed my usual self-imposed limits. But for the past several weeks, I've been working five hours a day, frantically, obsessively, wanting nothing more in my life than to FIX THIS BOOK.

This is the third round of revisions on this particular title. I did the first last December in response to extremely thoughtful comments from my new Boulder writing group, who dazzled me in the thoroughness of the amassed comments from the six of them. I sent it to my editor on New Year's Day and received comments from her in April, via a lengthy phone conversation. They were . . . sobering. The thing she liked least about the book was the thing I consider my greatest strength: characterizations. I moped, I sulked, I pouted, and then I sat myself down and revised.

As I was waiting for her response to the new, deeper, richer characterizations, I had two other writer friends read the manuscript; we had formed a little critique group last summer when we taught together in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins and decided to reconvene in virtual form this summer. They had plenty to say. Plenty. As I was moping, sulking, and pouting again, I heard from my editor. The characterizations were so much better this time! Whew! But . . . the book still wasn't working. The three different story lines didn't connect. It didn't build to one clear climax. Readers wouldn't be able to know what the book was about. In other words, the problem with the book lay with what I consider my greatest strength of all: structure.

In despair, I forwarded her comments to my two Hollins friends and got back MORE critical feedback from them. One of them even told me kindly that she had experienced similar problems in one of her "early books" (this is my 57th!!!).

I considered asking another writer friend to read it. I considered hiring the brilliant Plot Doctors to give me their consultation.

But then I decided: I had already had TOO MUCH CRITICISM.

For better or worse, now I needed to fix the book MYSELF. I poured myself a glass of orange juice, with a generous shot of vodka. I barricaded myself in my bedroom with a pad of paper on my knees, and then and there I made a plan to provide the structure the book currently lacked. As soon as I made the plan, I knew it was a good one. I sent it to my editor, and she agreed.

So all I had to do was toil mightily for weeks to implement the plan. Which I did.

And, oh, the improvement! That is why I was able to work so long and so hard, because I could see before my eyes dazzling improvement in every deleted scene, every added scene, and most of all, every rearranged scene. I was ashamed I had ever let anybody read it in its previous incarnations. I was a writer on fire!!

I sent the book off two days ago, with the conservative estimate that it is now a million times better. In the revisions, I made use of comments from every single critiquer who read it along the way. Each one contributed something of genuine value to the revision.

So: how many critics are too many? How many critics are just the right number? I do believe that every good, smart, thoughtful reader has some insight worth having. And yet. . . .it's so easy for a writer to feel despair at the volume of negative comments on one little book (even, or especially, extremely valid negative comments).

I've tentatively decided, now, after the fact, that the only limit to the number of critiques that is helpful is the mental fortitude of the writer: how much she can stand hearing. In this case, I was done after getting comments from two editors (Margaret and her assistant, Susan, twice), and eight other writers. That was all I could take: stick a fork in me, I'm done!

But I have to admit the book is better for every single one. After all the moping, sulking, and pouting comes gratitude. Thank you, dear critics, for every line of criticism, even if at some point I needed to stuff my ears and move on.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Authors Just Want to Have Fun

I used to decide whether or not to accept an author invitation by asking myself how much this or that appearance or event would advance my career. Well, actually, I mainly said yes to everything. There is a lot to be said for making YES your default setting - for  being what I call "a yay-sayer to the universe." And I still pretty much say yes to everything. But insofar as I pick and choose, my new criterion for picking and choosing is: will this be FUN?

Last weekend I had the most glorious fun ever at Denver's new children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right. Even its name makes me happy. (For those who may not remember: Peter Pan gives his address to Wendy as "second star to the right and straight on till morning.) The warm, friendly introductory email from Dea, the store owner, made me happy. The thought of getting to explore the Tennyson Street art district (which also boasts Denver's new cat cafe, the Denver Cat Company, where you can cuddle cats as you sip your tea) made me happy.

Then the event itself exceeded my happy expectations. The store is adorable. Dea and her husband, Mark, are off-the-charts gracious as hosts. Their assistant, Jordan, who in the rest of her life is a third grade teacher, was my best customer of the day.

Here is how adorable the store is:

Could anything be more adorable? Correct answer: no.

Did I sell a ton of books? No, but I sold some. Did I greet a throng of fans? No, but I had a delightful conversation with some wonderful kids and their parents, and a favorite former grad student surprised me by showing up with his wife and mega-huggable baby. Afterward I visited some kitties and bought myself a glass of sangria at the Book Bar across the street, another most pleasing establishment.

I had a wonderful afternoon of nonstop fun.

So: if anybody need an author to do anything fun, please give me a call!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Procrastination Tip: The Illusion of Autonomy

I'm back home in Colorado, after a delightful two-day drive along Route 36, which I greatly prefer over I-70. I passed through Springfield, IL (site of the Lincoln home and law office), Hannibal, MO (where I strolled by the Mississippi and helped to whitewash a fence), St. Joseph, MO (jumping-off point for the Pony Express), and many tiny towns across the northern edge of Kansas, where I listened to radio stations announcing hog futures for July and soybean futures for August.

After a weekend of easing myself back into my Colorado life by attending the Juan Miro exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, opening night of Othello in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and Singin' in the Rain at the Candlelight Dinner Theater (directed by my church friend Don Berlin), it was time for me to face my long to-do list for July.

I decided to wait until July 1 to tackle the month's tasks. How eager I was at the prospect of waking up extra early on that Wednesday morning ready to leap into a new life of dazzling productivity! And yet, as so often happens, when that morning actually arrived, my keenness to toil was suddenly . . . less keen. I felt more like beginning my new life of dazzling productivity on July 2. Or July 3.

This could not be allowed to happen! So here is what I did.

I made a list of the fifteen main projects I have to do in July, ranging from writing guest blog posts to revising two books, from reading manuscripts for mentees and critique partners to preparing for my work on the Children's Literature Association Phoenix Award Committee. Then I gave this order to myself: every day I have to work for two hours on two of these things - that is to say, one hour on each one - but . . .and this is the key . . . I get to pick which two.

If any of you have raised toddlers, you will remember how important it is to give them the illusion of autonomy. You don't say, "Brush your teeth!" You say, "Would you like to brush your teeth with the red toothbrush or the green one?" You don't say, "You have to wear your jacket!" You say, "Would you like to put on your jacket yourself or would you like Mommy to do it for you?"

Now, for better or worse, I have to be my own mommy, and I've given my balking self not two options, but a full fifteen from which to choose. I can pick anything from the list - anything! - but I have to pick something, in fact, two somethings, ever single day.

On July 1, I picked writing one  blog post, and then writing another. Inspired by this promising start, I actually did a third thing and read a friend's manuscript and sent her comments.

On July 2, I did part of another blog post (clearly I prefer writing blog posts over any other option on my list) and faced the Phoenix Award work (which was huge, as the hardest part of any task, always, is just facing it for the first time).

Today is July 3. I'm writing this blog post, natch, but that doesn't count as one of the possibilities. So I have to do two other things, but I can pick which two. Okay. I'll make more progress on yesterday's blog post (it's an extra challenging one), and then do one more stint of Phoenix work. Or maybe start reviewing possible readings for a course I'm scheduled to teach.

I get to pick! So I will pick! And I will do my two things! And little by little, day by day, the whole list will be crossed off, or at least most of it will be. So I'll go start now. Well, after I brush my teeth with the purple toothbrush.