Sunday, April 15, 2018

Writing the First Line of My New Book

Writing the first sentence of a new book is scary.

Even though you know you can change it.

Even though you more than likely will change it.

It just feels so . . . momentous, so significant, so "fraught with fraughtness" as my friend Brenda says.

I've developed a system for making this moment more jolly and joy-filled (extra appropriate for this year I'm devoting to the pursuit of creative joy). I write that first line someplace special, not all alone in my ordinary house, but Somewhere Else, with its own imagination-stirring energy.

Yesterday was the day I planned to start writing the second book in my After School Super Stars chapter book series: book one was set in an after-school cooking camp; book two is set in an after-school comic-book/graphic-novel camp. I've been consumed with intensive comic book research (see previous post). But I love to start writing as soon as possible, as so much happens - really, everything happens - when the characters start to come alive and interact with one another on the page.

I had already planned to take the bus to Denver in the afternoon for the Big Book Bash organized by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to celebrate new books out this spring by local members. The Big Book Bash was taking place at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, right by Union Station.

A plan began to form. What if I went in a bit earlier and wrote my first line of the new book sitting in the grand, glorious Great Hall of Union Station, with its many couches, chairs, tables, and other inviting writing spaces, not to mention its abundance of eateries to offer writerly sustenance?


The bus from Boulder to Denver takes just over half an hour; I used the time to read a graphic novel from my research stack (Smile, by Raina Telgememeier, which I loved). At Union Station I bought a luscious muffin and chose the unoccupied corner of a long, comfy couch.

Now was the fateful moment. I took the cap off my trusty Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen and wrote what might - or might not - be the first line of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. I won't share that line here, as it's too new and tender for sharing right now. But words have been written! On the page! By me! To start a new book!

Once the first page was finished (as well as every crumb of the muffin), for extra credit I hopped aboard the free Sixteenth Street shuttle and went further downtown to the Civic Center, where a convention of indie-comic-book-creators was taking place: DINK (Denver Independent Comics & Art Expo). More research for Vera's story! The day's outing finished up with cake to celebrate new books by several dear author friends at the Big Book Bash. This is what I would call a perfect author day.

So if it's scary writing the first page of a new book, go write it Somewhere Else (and eat something Extra Nice while writing it). Take it from me!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Next Up: Comic Books!

My editor finally approved my fifth round of revisions on NIXIE NESS, COOKING STAR (admittedly, the changes requested for the last two rounds were just tweaking of individual sentences to avoid repeated words and other infelicities of expression). So now I'm turning to the second title in the series, VERA EVERETT, COMIC BOOK STAR, where the kids in the After School Super Stars program will have said farewell to cooking camp and now be immersed in a camp focused on the making of comic books and graphic novels.

This means that I need to start learning something about comic books and graphic novels.

I started with the place that most research these days begins for me: Facebook. Two days ago I posted this query: "Parent friends, teacher friends, librarian friends, what are your kids' favorite comic books?" Within hours I had dozens of titles for my list. Those with multiple mentions include the Dogman series by Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame, Zeta the Spacegirl, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, Big Nate, Babymouse, Bone, and anything by Raina Telgemeier (such as Smile). Yesterday I trotted off to the gorgeous main branch of the Boulder Public Library to confer in person with the librarian there and came home with as many graphic novels as I could stuff in my totebag.

With a small bit of Googling I found online syllabi for classes on making comic books,You Tube videos on how to draw cartoon characters and do the lettering for dialogue and thought bubbles, and Pinterest posts on fun drawing activities for third graders. (I can't have the kids in my book do nothing but sit still and draw for the whole month of the camp - I need lively, active, FUN art-related stuff for them to do! Stuff that will be funny! And relevatory of character! And able to advance a plot!) A friend told me about a comic book camp taking place right now at her child's elementary school right here in Boulder; I'll call them later this morning to see if I can come visit for one afternoon.

The most important part of the whole process, however, will be thinking of Vera herself, now that I've come to know her a bit from meeting her in Nixie's book. What does Vera want or need that the comic book camp will help her get? What obstacles lie in the way of her getting it? And how can all of this happen in 15,000 words (around 70 typed pages)?

Comic book camp, here I come!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Change of Plans

My two little granddaughters, who come to us for ten days a month, were supposed to go back to their mommy on Sunday morning. Their mother lives a four-hour drive away, in distant Craig, Colorado. Our point of exchange, halfway for each of us, is in Kremling. To get there, I have to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel (elevation 11,000 feet); to get there, she has to drive over Rabbit Ears Pass (elevation 9400 feet). It can be sunny and warm in Boulder or Craig on a day when there is driving snow and "traction" laws (chains for trucks, snow tires for cars) in force at the tunnel or pass.

Saturday night at bedtime I saw a winter storm warning for the Colorado high country, so we switched the meeting time from Sunday to Monday. On Monday morning, there were still traction laws in effect at high elevations, so after much dithering and indecision, we decided to wait till my son, with better tires and better driving skills, was finished with his work and could make the drive in my stead; but then mid-morning the weather reports were favorable, so I loaded up Kat and Madi for a drive that ended up taking most of a day that was supposed to be spent meeting work obligations.

Oh, it's so hard to keep changing plans over and over again! I love when the girls come, but I also start to yearn for time to myself, or rather, time to do all the other kinds of work I need to do that I can't do when I'm a full-time caregiver for a two-year-old and a four-year-old: grope toward ideas for the next title in my forthcoming chapter book series for Holiday House, read installments of works-in-progress from my Hollins University graduate students and SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentees, even answer email - or write a blog post.

But that's what life is. We make plans.  Plans change. "Man proposes, God disposes." "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/ gang aft a-gley." "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Indeed.

I didn't plan for a winter storm last weekend. As far as that goes, I didn't plan for my son and his wife to get divorced. I didn't plan to be a ten-days-a-month caregiver for the two little girls I love more than anything in the world just as I took early retirement from being a philosophy professor at CU so I could devote myself full time to my writing. I didn't plan for any of this.

This month I'm doing the poem-a-day challenge again. Here's my favorite of April-so-far: a poem about the dog I didn't plan to have either.

Walking with Tanky-the-Dog

The only good thing about my son's divorce
was supposed to be that she would take 
the dog, but somehow – how did this happen? – 
here he is. We walk every day, the two of us.

Never has earth seen raptures to rival
Tanky's writhing with joy at the sight 
of the leash. He trots beside me, 
small legs churning, so pleased, so proud.

I'm surprised when other people stop
to tell me how cute my dog is. My dog?
Oh, that's right: they must mean Tanky.
If other dogs growl, he is sublimely indifferent. 

But if they don't, he does the obligatory
growling. After all, someone has to do 
whatever it is that needs to be done. And 
sometimes that someone turns out to be you.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Day before April

By popular request (well, my own request to myself), I'm re-posting my annual "Day before April" musings....

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1925). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family women's holiday. A decade or so ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually gave my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day before April. Maybe someday I will.

Today is the day before April. I'm going to buy some flowers - daff0dils, probably. My mother is no longer with us; she left this world in May 2010. I think of her constantly, but especially on every March 31. The daffodils I'll buy todaywill be in memory of her.

Happy day before April, everybody.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Strangest Thing about Revising a Book

Here's, for me, the strangest thing about revising a book.

It always has to be done.

Or at least, I always have to do it. Whenever I'm the the one writing a book, I'm also going to be the one revising it, and revising it, and revising it yet again.

The reason this feels so strange to me is that I've written so many books now: 58 published ones, and at least a dozen that never got themelves revised into a form worthy of publication. I've been doing this professionally, as both a career and the work of my heart, for close to 40 years. Wouldn't you think that by this point I would have gotten somewhat good at it? Wouldn't I have learned a thing or two or three that would eliminate the need, if not for revsion altogether, at least for so MANY rounds of revision?

Apparently the answer here is: no.

My brilliant editor at my new publisher, Holiday House, just sent my chapter-book-in-progress back for a third rewrite. I thought I had done a bang-up job on the first rewrite, back in January, returning it to her with a confident "Ta-dah!" Then back it came to me again, with a letter thanking me for the revisions, but going on to say, "but I'm afraid I think this needs more work than you do." Ouch! WAHHH!! Because of course I wouldn't have sent it back to her if I had thought it needed one speck more of work at all.

Not only did it need more work, in her view, but the chief problem requiring further attention was one  I would have callled a "beginner's error." My protagonist needed more of a character arc: she does change and grow by the end of the book, but not until the very end; her development needed to be paced more gradually. In other words, my editor was telling me exactly the kind of thing I tell beginning writers whom I'm teaching, advising, or mentoring. Double ouch! Double WAHHH!

At first I was irritated by the comments. This time she was just plain wrong; the book was perfect as it was; hadn't Margaret herself pronounced it "darling" upon a first reading? But, as I sat down to rewrite, I had a total about-face. Margaret is an editorial genius and is truly never wrong. As I began to revise, at first with nothing more than grudging trust in Margaret's infallible judgment, I came to share her assessment so completely that I felt ashamed that I could ever have thought my book was fine the way it was. How could I - veteran author of so many books written and published over so many years - have written something so blatantly, egregiously flawed?

But this is just what it is to be a writer. A book can be darling AND flawed. And seldom can an author see these flaws herself. This is the whole reason editors - and critique groups and "beta readers" - exist: to see the flaws authors inevitably miss in our own work, however perceptive we may be at discerning these in the work of others. We never outgrow our need for editors. We just forget how lucky we are to have them.

My protagonist Nixie now has a lovely character arc. I'm thrilled with the changes I made in round two. Margaret told me the revisions were "great," and she was right. She now wants just a bit more tweaking in round three, and she's right about that, too.  So today I'm happily tweaking away, hugging myself with happiness over every small improvement made.

In the end, the strangest thing about revising a book is not that I still have to do it, even after all these years. The strangest thing is that I even found this strange in the first place.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Joy of Decluttering the Garage

When my little granddaughters leave from their monthly ten-day visit, I send them back to their mommy with a pang of sorrow but also - I might as well admit it - with some relief that I can now regain control of my own time and my own space.

The first thing I do is move all the toys from the living room (actually, from every available stretch of floor) to their bedroom, organizing as I go (all the toy tools back in the toy toolkit, all the toy medical instruments back in the toy doctor kit. etc.). Stray socks are dispatched to the laundry hamper, stray shoes to the shoe shelf.

This time, once started, I couldn't stop. I cast my gaze upon my home studio/office/writing space and saw much scope for improvement. I don't mind stacks of books on the floor if they are library books recruited for a project. But I don't want standing stacks of books lacking a permanent home. So I identified some that could go to someone who might love them, not more than I do, but with more active, ardent attention. Say, those books from my college days in German, a language of which I can no longer read more than two or three words. Duplicate copies of books by friends, bought to be doubly supportive of their careers. I managed to cull 45 books from my collection, grateful that now they have the chance of actually being read, which is what every book longs for most of all.

My files were next. Did I really need all my writing correspondence from 2005? Photocopies of articles used to research scholarly papers which are easily available now on the internet? I filled the recycling can to overflowing.

On my way to the recycling can, I couldn't help but notice . . . .the garage. I hadn't parked in it for years as, for some reason I can't quite remember, other family members park their vehicles there while I park outside and cheerfully scrape ice off my windshield every winter morning.

The night before I was to tackle the garage, I couldn't sleep, too excited at the prospect of all the decluttering I could do, which I might add, was mainly decluttering of OTHER PEOPLE'S STUFF. Advance notice had been given to the affected parties. They had promised to assist with the task after church that day. But on that 25-degree morning, I found myself out there in my threadbare nightgown, no coat, no gloves, starting to drag down duffel bags that hadn't been opened for a decade to see what I might find . . .

It was bliss.

Even greater bliss: sorting, washing, organizing, sweeping, and taking a few dozen trash bags, filled with items no longer needed or wanted here but potentially useful to others, to Goodwill.

My current favorite poet, Kay Ryan, who writes spare, exquisitely crafted verse, has a marvelous short poem on decluttering, "That Will to Divest," which begins: "Action creates a taste for itself." (Go right this minute and buy her Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection The Best of It).

Now that I'm done with the garage project, I'm thrilled with the results but also strangely sorrowful. Alexander the Great is said to have wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. I'm weeping because I have no more garages to declutter.

I guess I could offer to come declutter yours, but it wouldn't be the same. (Though actually, it does tempt me quite a bit . . . .). As Kay Ryan writes, once decluttering has begun:

it gets harder
not to also 
simplify the larder

not to mention - the garage.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Creative Joy: Travel Journaling

As part of my new year's goal for 2018 of providing myself with ten hours a month of creative joy, I signed up with my creative-joy-buddy Kate for a class at the Art Students League of Denver on "Travel Journaling," taught by Judith Cassel-Mamet. Kate had taken a class with Judith before and told me how wonderful it was. So off I went to Denver yesterday for a massive dose of creative joy.

I woke up joyous even at the thought of taking the bus to Denver - oh, I do love traveling by bus! During the morning rush hour buses run from Boulder to Denver every five or ten minutes. I didn't even have to check a schedule; I just presented myself at the Park-and-Ride and hopped on the first Denver-bound bus that came along. Then I gave myself the treat of a nice long-ish walk from the Civic Center to the old school that houses the Art Students League.
After being happy for every minute of my trip into the city, I was then happy from the minute I walked past classrooms of painters in front of their easels and found our studio, where Judith welcomed us and got us ready for the morning's artistic explorations. I loved her whole approach to travel journaling. For Judith, travel is just "mindful movement," so that "even a mundane activity can be an adventure," if approached with anticipation and openness: "What is this hour is going to bring?" Indeed, she opened the class by asking us all to share some memorable moment from our trip to the class today. Mine was seeing a middle-school student skipping along - literally skipping - violin in hand.

Once we began trying out Judith's journaling techniques, the class was pure play. We made evocative, illustrated maps of our trip into the city. We took half an hour to wander around the Art Students League grounds noting striking images to sketch. It was fine to sketch badly; the point was just to "capture the narrative"and "anchor the experience." I'm a terrible artist. Who cares? Here's my piece from the morning. I'm not in love with it the way I was in love with the poems I wrote last month. But I was just as much in love with the process of creating it.
During the class we worked with little sketching kits Judith had assembled for us, which contained a drawing pencil, Micron extra-fine pen, watercolor set, kneaded rubber eraser, and best of all, a Koi Water Brush (which could squeeze out water a drop at a time). She offered the kits for sale afterward and of course I bought one.
Just looking at it makes me feel more creative.

Now that I have a travel journal kit, I should schedule a magical trip for myself somewhere to use it. Judith is correct, of course, that there is plenty of magic in the everyday if we approach our ordinary surroundings as if we were visitors from a faraway land. But while I'm in a travel-journaling mood, I might as well sign up to go to an actual faraway land. Right? After all, if creative joy is my only new year's goal this year, why not provide myself with all the creative joy that I can?