Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Starting Over Again on the Autumnal Equinox

Many of my friends know that I like to start a new life on the first day of each month. A new commitment to fitness! To frugality! To astonishing work productivity! To using my leisure time to read heaps of wonderful books! The new life usually peters out after a few days, but I truly think I owe everything I've ever achieved to those few days of each month's glorious new life.

I'm in need of a new life right now, but it's hard for me to start one on some random day, despite familiar sayings that remind us that EVERY day can be "the first day of the rest of your life." But today is the autumnal equinox, which is a PERFECT day to start a new life. Autumn has always been my favorite season; perhaps it's yours, too. I adore the energy of back-to-school (even if back-to-school was so much less energizing this year, thanks to the pandemic). I envy Jewish friends who get to celebrate the start of a new calendar year with Rosh Hashanah in September. I welcome the briskness of cool mornings, so excellent for equally brisk walks.

But if autumn can feel like the season of new purpose, it's also the season of harvesting the fruits of spring's planting and summer's cultivation, and the season of preparation for winter's bare trees and blustery skies. I've recently seen quoted the sentiment that with its brilliant foliage, "Autumn shows us how beautiful it is to let things go." 

I'm in the processing of harvesting the fruits of spring's blissful writing of my first verse novel, which is now in copy-editing at my publisher, Holiday House, headed for fall 2021 publication. I'm launching my hour-a-day-of bliss on writing a second verse novel. My writing group has read the first twenty pages of the new project, and so far they like it even better than the last one, which early readers have declared to be my best book ever. So hooray for both of these things!

But I'm also letting go of a lot of hopes for how this year was going to turn out. It's been one of the hardest years of my personal/family life, and I'm now facing all the ways in which not only the coming years, but decades, will not be what I dreamed of for my loved ones, and so for me. And don't get me started on THE WORLD!!! I have yet to find a single person who thinks 2020 has been a good year for the world. But it's the year we've been given. As Tolkien wrote:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

This is the time that has been given us.

So let us welcome autumn, which is, according to Keats, "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." It's the season of purpose, as I'm declaring it to be for me today, but also the season of harvest (sweet and bitter), and above all, the season of learning to let go. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Revisions: From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a Week

A week ago I was sitting on my friend Leslie's deck, literally sobbing because I knew there was no way I could possibly salvage anything whatsoever from my beloved verse-novel-in-progress after reading the VERY long, VERY detailed, and VERY daunting list of comments from my VERY trustworthy editor. 

Given that the entire storyline was unmotivated, and central characters were too unlikable, and crucial scenes were implausible (plus several hundred other details were inconsistent, confusing, or downright annoying), if I were even to attempt revisions on this scale, there would truly be nothing left of the book as I had originally written it. Nothing at all. And this was the book I had written with the greatest joy and for which I had the highest hopes. Now joy had become misery! Now all hopes were cruelly dashed!

Well, after I sobbed for a while, I started to get some ideas for how I could make a few small-but-significant changes that would fix just about all of the problems my editor had identified. She and I talked on the phone the next day, and when I returned to my desk, I was not only encouraged, but exhilarated. 

I didn't quite LEAP into revision. My revision method is a very bad one, but it's the one that works for me. Ideally, one would fix the BIG things first, and then the middle-sized things, and then deal with the teensy-weensy things last. As I read somewhere, why would you spend a lot of time decorating a wall that is just going to be knocked down? It only makes sense to deal with major structural issues first, right?

My method, however, is the opposite. I have to do the easy things first just so that I can feel less hopeless about the whole project. For this book, my editor had flagged my overuse of several words: "back" (as in "back when we were still friends," "still" (as in, ditto), and "totally." To this I added "really." I did a global search for the overused words and eliminated a huge quantity. Progress was being made!

On I went, to more challenging queries, and then, once the work was 90 percent done, to the biggest story problems - which actually were fixed with just a few judicious cuts and additions. I typed up a four-page single-spaced memo explaining all the FABULOUSLY WONDERFUL changes I had made, and how I had fixed ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING! I attached manuscript, memo, and book calendar to my email, and then pressed SEND. 

From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a week.

Oh, why do I make things so hard on myself? When this book (as yet untitled) is published, it will be my 62nd book for young readers. Wouldn't you think that by now I'd be used to the many rounds of revision that are necessary to produce a published book? Why can't I just skip over the dark night of the soul and trot straight to my computer and plop myself down to work? 

Well, maybe the dark night of the soul is just part of the process, too - maybe it's a necessary step that can't be omitted. When I write a book, the events in the story seem so real to me, as if this is "how it actually happened." Readjustment of this vision is bound to be . . . jarring. 

But still, here are some things I'm going to work harder at remembering:

1. When an editor (or journal reviewer) asks you to revise something, they really, truly want you to revise THIS, as opposed to ripping it up and starting all over again with something completely new. You are revising THIS book, or THIS article. If they wanted you to throw it away and start all over again, they would have said so. 

2. Editors (and journal reviewers) are on your side. You both want the exact same thing: the best possible book, or the best possible article. 

3. Just as books are written one page at a time, so revisions can be made one problem at a time. Just fix one thing, then another thing, and then another thing. And then twenty or thirty more. And you will be done! (Or at least, done for now.)

4. There is no one way to revise any more than there is one way to write. Find what works for YOU. Once in a while, it's permissible to rethink or refine, but for the most part, if you have a tried-and-true system, rely on it to work its miracle for you this time, too. 

5. Let yourself feel not only the joy, but the wonder, of watching small alterations produce huge effects. Savor the malleability of the clay of your words in your hands. Enjoy the kneading of the dough; marvel at its rising.

6. And when you finally press SEND, give yourself a treat. 

I see some peach pound cake in my future...


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Some Days (and Weeks, and Months, and Years) Are Just Very Hard

As the child character says in the opening line of Sara Pennypacker's delightful book Clementine, "I have had not so good of a week."

An excruciatingly painful legal case my family has been involved with for the past three years reached its conclusion. I thought this would bring me the relief of closure, but instead it made me all too aware of consequences we will all be living with for the rest of our days.

Then, on an extra-bad morning, my editor emailed me another round of revision notes for my forthcoming verse novel. I had already done two extensive rounds of revision, so I expected the suggested changes to be minor tweaks. But as I read her very long and detailed memo, it seemed as if every single aspect of the story remained problematic: the entire engine driving the plot was sputtering, crucial scenes were implausible, major characters were unlikable. There was NOTHING here that was salvageable at all. The problems in the book that I had written with such joy were simply un-fixable. 

To quote another delightful children's book: like Judith Viorst's Alexander, I was having "a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day."

I started an email to my editor saying that I wanted to withdraw the book from publication, but instead sent her an email asking if we could set up a time to talk through the comments. "Of course!" she said. And when we did talk the next morning, I realized that all of the problems she raised were not only fixable, but could be fixed in fairly simple ways that will make the book I love that much stronger and more compelling. So hooray for that.

But I'm still sad. I'm sad about my family's heartaches. I'm sad about the state of the world right now (who isn't?). Too sad to work, I've been spending endless hours scrolling through Facebook posts. This is not a good activity for someone who is already depressed (oh, those poor teachers, parents, and students trying to figure out how to educate anybody in the middle of a pandemic!). So I retrieved the I-pad I had banished to the garage and started spending endless hours doing online Sudoku puzzles. This, unsurprisingly, did not improve my mood, either. 

Reading good books helped: Ann Patchett's The Dutch House and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and watching episodes of the French detective series Maigret, with English subtitles (I now have a huge crush on lead actor Bruno Cremer). So did walks with the dog, and phone calls and ZOOM chats with friends.

It may just be, however, that nothing will help all that much. My family situation is very sad. The state of the world right now is horrific. We're ALL sad. Sadness is appropriate and justified.

Still, I know the one thing that would lift my spirits is doing the work that I love, which is writing. Even though I feel too sad to write, I know with great certainty that if I could force myself to work on these verse novel revisions for just HALF AN HOUR, it would add a tiny bit of joy to this hard week. Writing this blog post is already giving me an itty-bitty surge of satisfaction: at least I'm doing this. 

So I'm going to try. After I publish this post, I'm going to take a shower, put in a load of laundry (another spirit-booster), pull up my manuscript on the screen, turn over my half-hour glass (the one I use when a full hour is too daunting), and begin fixing the most easily fixable things.

Some days (and weeks, and months, and years) are just very hard. But we might as well do what we can to make them a little bit better. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

My Best Writing Ritual of All

Most writers I know love rituals that summon the muses for the act of creation.

My main one is writing for an hour a day, timed with my beautiful, hand-crafted, cherrywood hourglass, while drinking Swiss Miss hot chocolate in a mug given to me years ago by a writer friend. Every once in a while, I amp up the ritual by lighting one of the deliciously scented candles that a high school friend sells in her Etsy shop, and plopping a dollop of Cool Whip into my mug of Swiss Miss. This is pretty much the system that has allowed me to write sixty books over the past forty years. It's an excellent system. I recommend it highly!

But writing the VERY FIRST LINE of a new book, in my view, is such a momentous occasion that it calls for something more. So in recent years I've developed the practice of writing the first line of each new book someplace special - not just lying on the little couch in my upstairs study, but at a cafe with a writer friend, or sitting in the lobby of a fancy hotel, or in a friend's sunroom (yes, I'm talking about you, dearest Jeannie!).

For the past few weeks I've been groping toward another verse novel, as I loved the writing of the last one (my first attempt at the form) so much that I'm yearning to try a second one. I have over 20 pages of closely written handwritten notes on every aspect of the story. Groping - and note-taking - and outlining - and planning - only go far, however. Sooner or later comes the fateful moment when I have to start the actual writing itself: facing the first page, which means the first paragraph, which means the very first line.

So this morning I drove myself to the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of my favorite places on earth. It's now reopened from its COVID closure, with timed-entry tickets to be ordered in advance online, masks worn constantly unless eating or drinking, social distancing maintained. Would it still be fun, I asked myself, with all these restrictions? The answer: YES!

The gardens are so beautiful! The weather was cool and sunny after weeks of heat and smoky skies. I found a bench where I'd be undisturbed.

There I pulled out my ancient clipboard-without-a-clip, pad of narrow-ruled white paper, and Pilot P-500 pen.

Then I wrote the title of the first poem. And the first line of the first poem. And the rest of the first poem, and then the whole poem after that.

I won't share these here. They are too new and tender for sharing, and there is no guarantee they will survive all the future rounds of revision to make their way into the final, published book (if there even is a final, published book - one never knows). 

Pleased with my progress, I wandered over to a second bench.

I wrote another few poems, for a few more pages.

Time for lunch! I treated myself to a sandwich and salad at the charming bistro by the Monet's Water Lilies pond (just about all the tables and chairs have been removed for COVID precautions, but it was easy to find a solitary, shaded bench with a good view. I was in the mood for celebrating. 

Even though I've only written a few pages so far, the book is BEGUN. Now I can go back to writing on my couch with my hourglass and mug of Swiss Miss. One by one, pages will accumulate. Characters will surprise me. Storylines will unfold. 

Whenever I look back at that first page, I will remember: I wrote this in the Denver Botanic Gardens on a perfect late-August day.... And that is a memory to cherish. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Tip for Writers (and Other Humans): You See More If You Look

This past weekend I attended (via ZOOM) a workshop hosted by the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and presented by local author Ellen Orleans: "Bringing the Outdoors into Children's Books: Interactive Nature Activities for Writers and Illustrators."

The ZOOM session was wonderful, but the best part of the workshop was the homework Ellen assigned us to do in advance. Our task was to take a short walk and complete one of three sets of activities: 1. Make It Fresh with New Discoveries; 2. Make It Alive with Sensory Details; and 3. Make It Specific with Nature Names.

I love homework, anyway, and writing homework is my favorite kind of homework. Ellen's assignment might have been my favorite homework EVER.

Leaving the dog at home for a (pleasant!) change, I strolled around the cluster of townhouses where I live, and where I walk with Tanky three times every single day. But this time I was on a mission, to "note what surprises, astonishes, or is a new discovery for you."

In the past, I had truly never noticed ANYTHING. My walking time is my thinking time, my planning time, my time for making long to-do lists in my head. 

So now, charged with the challenge of noticing, I had a new discovery literally every few steps.

Look! A tiny plant valiantly growing from a crack in a boulder!

Look! Pewter-colored lichen! Rust-colored lichen! Tiny golden leaves as harbingers of autumn!

Then I remembered that ages ago I had downloaded a free nature-identifying app on my phone that I had never bothered to use, called Seek. So I started Seeking. I'd snap a picture of a flower, and now I'd know its name: Dotted Gayflower!

I'd find a berry and wonder if I should try tasting it as part of my new sensory immersion in nature, or if that might occasion a painful death from poisoning. But Seek would assure me this was a Chokecherry. 

So into my mouth I popped one.

At the ZOOM workshop later in the day, one fellow author commented on the sheer power just of the question Ellen had posed for us. Just by being asked, "What astonished you?" Katherine set off on her walk with this expectation: "I am ready to be astonished."

I was ready to be astonished, too, and precisely for this reason I WAS astonished: partly (in a shamefaced way) by all I had missed on my daily walks for the past ten years, but also by how thrilling it was to be able to name even a tiny weed growing in oblivion at the edge of a sidewalk - and in seeking for its name, truly SEEING it for the first time. 

Will I make use of the nature workshop in my writing? I doubt I'll ever have one of my characters exclaim  over a "dotted gayflower" in any scene in one of my books. But I can see how my new knowledge of the difference between a spruce and a pine (I truly knew nothing at all about the natural world before!!) might add specificity to some future description. 

Most of all I just learned - what I guess I already knew, but constantly need to make myself remember - that I am vastly more likely to SEE if I take the trouble to LOOK. LOOKING at the world with an attentive, expectant gaze vastly increases my chance of making small, but wonderful, discoveries. 

Thank you, Ellen Orleans, and thank you, SCBWI organizers, and thank you, beautiful, glorious, astonishing world.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Book-Shaped Hole in My Heart

Life progress report: I finished a full draft of my verse novel. I completed a round of extensive revisions from brilliant writing-group comments. I saw a career record broken in the speed with which it was read by my agent, sent on to my editor, and accepted for publication. It's now on my editor's desk awaiting her unfailingly mega-brilliant comments. 


Or rather. . . hooray? I loved writing that book more than I've ever loved writing anything. Every single hour I spent working on it was an hour of bliss, bliss that permeated the other twenty-three hours of each day, casting a soft radiance over months of COVID isolation and online-teaching frustration.

Now I miss that hour a day of bliss. 

Now I have a book-shaped hole in my heart.

I do have plenty of other projects I can do, of course.  Reviewer comments have arrived on my desk for a children's lit article I submitted back in April. Reviewer Number Two, in particular, suggested plenty for me to do. Here is just ONE ACTUAL REPRESENTATIVE QUOTE from the review, in case any other scholars out there have ever felt discouraged by a reviewer's response to their work: "One of the key issues the author should address in revision is the essay's overall lack of purpose and cohesion" (!!!!!!). 

For some reason, these comments are not giving me a blissful feeling. 

I have two other academic assignments in the works, and an idea for a picture book biography about somebody I adore, but whom six-year-old readers are exceedingly unlikely to care about. I should also do a bunch of pesky promotional stuff to support my two poor little books that are coming out this year in the middle of a pandemic.

These projects have their appeal, but even the picture book biography (where the text would be only a thousand words max) isn't really going to fill a book-shaped hole in my heart. In fact, I'm coming to realize that this hole in my heart has an oddly specific shape: it's not only a book-shaped hole, it's a verse-novel-shaped hole.

It's well known that a hole in one's heart can't just be stuffed full with any old thing. A hole in your heart caused by an absence of love can't be filled by more gin-and-tonics. A hole in your heart caused by a dearth of meaning in your life can't be filled by more Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers. (Even though gin-and-topics and apple turnovers are both highly excellent things.) I don't think there is any hole in anybody's heart that has ever been filled by wrestling with comments from Reviewer Number Two!

So, sad but true, I guess I'm going to have to fill this verse-novel-shaped hole in my heart by groping toward, yes, another verse novel. 

Or actually, not sad but true, but happy and true.

Sometimes, after all, a true thing can be a happy thing, too.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Dealing with Drudgery

Years ago, the chair of the Philosophy Department asked me to serve on a particularly dreary committee. I hesitated: "It sounds like so much drudgery!" Eager to have me - or anyone, actually - take on this chore, he hastened to assure me, "But you're so good at drudgery!"

Indeed, once upon a time I was "good at drudgery" - by which I mean "dispatching distasteful tasks with brisk efficiency." But lately I've become . . . not so good. Each morning I dutifully set down various Loathsome Tasks (LT's) onto the day's to-do list. But at nightfall, those LTs remain undone, and with a sigh, I copy them onto the to-do list for tomorrow.

My current dilemma regarding how to deal with drudgery is this: 

On the one hand, the most sure-fire way to cross off LTs is to leap into doing them as soon as I wake up. But there is only one first, best hour of the day. If I give it to LTs, I don't give it to the work I really care about, which for me is writing. One might think that the relief of immediately knocking off an LT would generate momentum for accomplishing more pleasurable tasks for the rest of the day. But one would think wrong. Even though I love writing, and proclaim each writing hour to be an Hour of Bliss, writing is nonetheless daunting. Strength must be summoned - strength squandered instead on LTs.

But on the other hand, if I give the first, best hour of the day to writing, I'm already so thrilled with the day's productivity that I feel no need to accomplish anything else. "Drudgery can wait!" I chortle to myself. So drudgery waits. And waits. And waits.

It doesn't work to give myself rewards, either. I'm not very good at delayed gratification. Besides, no additional reward will give me any greater happiness than the reward I'd get simply from crossing one more LT off that darned list.

So here is my new plan. (I love trying out different plans!) 

The first, best hour of the day goes to writing, from 5:00-6:00 a.m.

Then: walk, shower, breakfast, teeth-brushing.

Then RESTART the day: declare that the earlier Hour of Bliss was just a extra credit hour, not part of the work day proper. After all, I didn't HAVE to get up at 5:00. A lot of people don't get up 5:00. Such an early hour, according to proverb, belongs rightly to the early bird, to use as she will. But now, at 8:00, the REAL and OFFICIAL work day is beginning. 

Then: set a timer (or turn over my hourglass) and devote the first, fresh hour of the REAL work day to the most urgent of the many Loathsome Tasks facing me. Ta-dah!

"Only ONE hour?" you scoff. "How much drudging can get drudged in one puny, pathetic, pitiful hour?" 

The answer is: more than you would think. The key to accomplishing ANY task is first to face it. Facing it is truly 90 percent of the battle. And it's easier to face a task if I promise myself I only have to devote one short hour to it. Ah, but once the task is faced, I can usually go longer than an hour - maybe even two! Enough to cross off several LT's, especially as many of the tasks on which I've been procrastinating FOR WEEKS are shamefully tiny - some so tiny that it practically takes as long to write them on the to-do list than it would take simply to do them.

So: one Hour of Bliss before the real day begins, and then an Hour of Drudgery to start the real day. 

And then: the reward of feeling obnoxiously smug and self-satisfied till the day's end.