Saturday, July 31, 2010

Louisa May

Last night I was at loose ends, so I started flipping through all the rich material in the Norton Critical Edition of Little Women: snippets from Alcott's journals, relevant editorial correspondence, contemporary reviews, and modern critical analysis. It was a VERY illuminating experience for a writer facing her own impending deadline and beset by her own self-doubts.

I had already known that Alcott undertook the writing of Little Women only reluctantly, after her editor asked her to write "a girls' book" - "Never liked girls, or knew many," she grumbled. I hadn't realized that this same editor was quite unappreciative upon receiving the opening chapters: "Sent twelve chapters of "L.W." to Mr. N. He thought it dull; so do I." In a much later self-comment on her own journal, she wrote, ""the 'dull' book was the first golden egg of the ugly duckling."

What most astonished me was that she wrote the entire second half of the book - Meg's wedding, Laurie's failed courtship of Jo, Laurie's successful courtship of Amy, Beth's heart-rending death, Jo's romance with Prof. Bhaer - all in two months. She began the second part of Little Women on November 1st, 1868, reporting to her journal, "I find I can do a chapter a day, and in a month I mean to be done." And indeed, she sent the full manuscript to the publisher on New Year's Day - proud that she had resisted readers' pleas for her to mate Jo and Laurie: "I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please any one."

I will no longer complain about my deadlines. If Louisa May Alcott could write a chapter a day, I can certainly write a chapter every two or three days. And if her "dull" book did so well, maybe I shouldn't despair quite yet of the dullness of mine, but just keep on writing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

No Poltergeist, After All

Two weeks ago I wrote about a possible poltergeist in my church: I had arrived at church with a key to the church on my key ring, and left that same night with NO church key on my key ring, but two STRANGE keys that I had never seen before, presumably keys that would open the gate to some magical kingdom.

Alas, it is my sad duty to report that I subsequently found the church key in the pocket of my skirt when I wore that same skirt a few days later, and I discovered that the other two keys open the regular lock and deadbolt lock of the door at Grandpa's house. I had no idea that I had keys to Grandpa's house, but apparently I did.

So there was no poltergeist. No keys to a magical kingdom. Just humdrum reality.

Some people are reassured - nay, gleeful - when the laws of natural science end up being vindicated yet again. Indeed, some people devote their lives to debunking claims of the extraterrestrial or supernatural, finding ho-hum explanations of crop circles, flying saucer abductions, ghostly visitations, not to mention anything to do with fairies, elves, gnomes, and sprites. Oh, and God.

Not me. I'm with Hamlet, who said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

But a poltergeist in residence at my church is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Showing Up

The more prosaic way to say it is Woody Allen's, "90 percent of success is just showing up" (which I've also heard quoted as "80 percent of success is just showing up"). A more poetic way is this, from artist Philip Guston, quoted by Gail Godwin, reproduced in the wonderful collection of meditations for writers, Walking on Alligators, edited by Susan Shaughnessy:

"I go to my studio every day, because one day I may go and the angel will be there. What if I don't go and the angel came?"

I've been stuck on my book-in-progress, Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters. Is it as funny and sweet as the first book in the series, Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters? Is it funny and sweet AT ALL? Is there, well, is there a PLOT to the story? A plot that would make anybody keep on turning the pages to find out what happens next? For two days I could hardly force myself to write it, and if the writer can't force herself to write it, that doesn't bode well for the reader, who will hardly be inclined to force himself to read it.

Then today I made myself show up. Just made myself do it. I sat down and read through the first few chapters and found out exactly what I needed to do to raise the level of interest and dramatic tension in the book. Then I started writing a new scene for chapter 8 and all of a sudden, a whole new plot possibility presented itself. Two, actually.

I don't know if I could honestly say that an angel came. But my hand was racing across the page in delighted anticipation of what was going to happen next. And that does bode well for my eventual reader.

Right now, I believe that 100 percent of success is just showing up.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Solving Problems

One of my summer pleasures is going to Rockies games at Coors Field. I'm somewhat surprised that I've become such a fan, as I was raised as a child to loathe and abominate all sports, whether as participant or spectator. But then I went to one Rockies game with my sister and her husband when they were visiting from New Jersey, and it was tons of fun. I have to confess that my favorite part has nothing to do with watching the game itself: it's singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the 7th inning stretch. I'm also partial to the singing of the National Anthem. And the part where the crowd gets to vote, via applause meter, for which song to hear played during a break between innings.

My least favorite part is driving home. For some reason, although we drive to Coors Field with ease, I have never figured out how to get home from there. So what we do is just turn on some random street (a different random street each time, in hopes of a better outcome this time around) and drive through deserted stretches of Denver (lots of warehouses and empty parking lots) for a long time until I somehow stumble upon a chance to get on I-70. I make a wild guess at which direction is the one I want, to take me to I-25, and from there, I can figure out the rest.

But this last time, when we went to see the Rockies play the Cardinals, my son Gregory surprised me by telling me, "What you want to do is turn right on 20th Street." Why 20th Street? Why right? I didn't ask. I just obeyed. He had obviously done some research ahead of time. And sure enough, RIGHT AWAY there was an on-ramp to the HOV lane for I-25. We were home in no time flat.

This might be a breakthrough for me. Sometimes when you have a problem, there is a solution to the problem. And if you make a small effort to find the solution, something that has been a constant source of low-grade irritation in your life disappears, just like that. This might even work for something that is a source of major stress and anxiety.

I'm going to explore this more and get back to you on it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wisdom from a Friend

Despite my checking my email every five minutes for the past two days, I have gotten no new reviews of One Square Inch to counteract that somewhat disappointing review from Kirkus, the review that made me blush by quoting a couple of eloquent and lovely lines drawn from the book that the reviewer charged were implausible as utterances out of the mouth of a sixth-grade boy first-person narrator.

But then I got something even better, a wonderful email from one of my most favorite children's book authors, Sally Warner, who writes some of the most beautiful and moving books of anybody I know (she writes funny books, too, really funny ones, but the beautiful, moving ones are the ones that are lodged in my heart right now, books whose titles alone can break your heart: It's Only Temporary, Sort of Forever, A Long Time Ago Today.

Sally wrote me that the reviewer's comment on my book was "a bogus comment, because kids don't speak at all in real life the way we write them, anyway. Real conversation, whether child or adult, would be virtually unreadable."

And then, even more wisely, Sally wrote, "In much the same way that children like to read about other kids who may be braver, more adventurous, or stronger/prettier than they are, I think they also like to read about kids who are better able to articulate what they, the readers, are feeling. In fact, they're counting on it! That is, what they FEEL is every bit as deep as we could imagine, but they often can't sort it out. So the 'too knowing' character does that for them."

Doesn't that make you want to sit down and start reading one of Sally's books right now?

Okay, Kirkus reviewer: my too-articulate narrator is giving kids what they are COUNTING on getting from a book. Yay for me! And yay to Sally for being more articulate about this than I was able to be.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Of Wind and Sails

Needless to say, a lukewarm review does much to take the wind out of one's writing sails. And my sails were already on the limp, sagging, drooping side. And I have such a huge writing ocean to traverse between now and the end of the summer.

Yesterday I did nothing but feel sad - about my "mixed" review, and then while I was at it, about everything else that was disappointing in my current life. For good measure, I reviewed all my recent losses and wallowed in them. I didn't bring a chapter of the new book-in-progress to my critique group meeting last night, because I knew they would hate it and find it as deadly dull as I did and then I'd never be able to force myself to continue writing it.

But then it was this morning. A new day. A day not yet marred by any "mixed" reviews. I got up at 6:30 (in summertime I don't have to get up at 5:00) and made myself my Swiss Miss hot chocolate. I read through the book-in-progress and axed the subplot that wasn't working; I realized that without its dragging the story down, the rest of it the book so far was fine - more than fine, quite dear and darling. I wrote a good new scene and finished up Chapter 6. I think the book is going to have 13 chapters, so I'm almost halfway there (though admittedly I had a good bit of a previous draft that I could salvage for the first half and nothing for the second half - but still).

I'm heading back toward the open waters. Wish me Godspeed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Mixed Review"

I just got the first review of my fall middle-grade novel, One Square Inch. It's from Kirkus, and it's what my editor called "mixed, but mostly good."

I think it's mixed, but mostly bad.

On the good side, they said it's a "poignant tale," and that certain elements of the book "are affecting and emotionally true." They also said that the book is engaging. On the bad side, they said that the story is too depressing to attract a large audience - pretty damning, that! And that the first-person voice of the book is too sophisticated for a sixth-grade boy.

The thing that hurts is that I think both of those criticisms are true. The book IS depressing. The voice IS too sophisticated.

Of course, part of me also wants to say: but look at all those other horrendously depressing books that win major awards! Look at all those books that are not poignant, but downright grim, hideously bleak and hopeless. And they command a huge audience. And aren't most first-person narratives a tad too sophisticated for us to believe that they could be utterances from the mouth of an actual kid? Huh? Huh?

But I'm still sad.

Another part of me wants to say: but this is really not the FIRST review of the book, but the SECOND review. The FIRST review was its being chosen a month or two ago as a Junior Library Guild selection, which is a very nice honor that it has already received, despite its alleged depressingness and overly sophisticated voice.

But I'm still sad.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Savvy

Ingrid Law's 2008 Newbery-Honor middle-grade novel, Savvy, tells of the Beaumont family, whose members each discover their "savvy," their own distinctive supernatural gift, when they turn thirteen. Some of the savvies in the book are causing hurricanes, stepping back in time 20 minutes with every sneeze, melting ice with a red-hot stare, and Momma's very convenient savvy of being perfect. The book works to invite readers to reflect on their own savvy and what it might be.

I've decided that my savvy is the ability to get a lot of work output with very little work input. I have many friends who accomplish vastly more than I do, but I don't have any friend who accomplishes as much with as little effort as I do.

This has been a very good savvy. But now that I have these challenging Random House deadlines, I'm sort of wishing that I had the savvy of being able to work very, very hard. What I really wish is that I had that savvy PLUS my savvy: the ability to generate a great deal of outcome with very little effort AND the ability to generate a great deal of effort. Wouldn't that be ideal? It's hard to imagine a more productive combination than that.

But probably the reason why I'm able to produce so much with such limited time expended is because mine is the savvy of highly concentrated effort. If I worked longer hours, my concentration would become diluted. Or at least that is one theory.

More important, in Ingrid's novel, the characters don't get to choose their savvy. It just comes upon them on their thirteenth birthday, and they get what they get. I guess I like my savvy better than the savvy of causing hurricanes or melting ice. In any case, it's my savvy.

What's yours?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Walk on the Wild Side: Eat Pizza

I've been taking some whacks at expanding and developing my Children's Literature Association conference paper on redemption through the rural in the 1950s teen novels of Rosamund DuJardin. So I've been deep in an orgy of reading DuJardin: from Double Date, Double Feature, and Double Wedding, I turned to the Marcy Rhodes books (Wait for Marcy, Marcy Catches Up, A Man for Marcy, Senior Prom) and the Tobey Heydon books (Practically Seventeen, Class Ring, Boy Trouble, The Real Thing, Wedding in the Family, and One of the Crowd).

One thing I learned from these books is that a girl is always going to end up with the boy who drives an old jalopy that he bought with his own hard-earned money and fixed up himself, rather than the boy (even a very pleasant boy) who drives a "smooth" convertible given to him as a present from his parents.

Another, more surprising thing, that I learned, is that the wild boy who wants to stay out ALL NIGHT on prom night is also going to introduce the girl to wild new foods, such as: pizza.

In Senior Prom (1957), Bruce Douglas, who tries to kiss Marcy on THE VERY FIRST DATE, is crazy about pizza and introduces Marcy to this new experience. When they get to Tony's pizzeria, Marcy finds that "Everyone seemed to be eating wedges of what looked to Marcy like big, golden yellow pancakes, with catchup or something tomato-y on top."

"Is that it?" Marcy asks Bruce.

Indeed it is. But Bruce reassures her: "We'll just order a plain one this first time. You have to sort of work up to the really fancy concoctions."

So: wild, dangerous boys eat pizza. And really wild, dangerous boys eat pizza with TOPPINGS.

Friday, July 9, 2010


As I write this, someone I care about is embroiled in a hideously painful and significantly life-affecting dispute with someone else who is behaving in a vile and nasty way. Every time I think about this other person's vileness and nastiness, I feel sick inside. It's all I can do to stop thinking about it. But last night, as I lay in bed unable to fall asleep, I decided that this is precisely what I need to do: stop thinking about it.

As an outsider to the dispute, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I offered my services at one point only to find the vileness and nastiness directed instead at me. Neither party to the dispute is inclined to welcome or accept my advice. All I can do is listen, if called upon to listen. That is it.

I find myself wanting to think about this over and over again, and also to tell everybody else about it. In the past, my strategy for dealing with difficult things in my life has been to write about them and to talk about them to my friends. I've found that the more times I tell a story about some hard thing in my life, the more the hard thing starts to become . . . just a story, a narrative of events that might as well have happened to somebody else.

But now I'm rethinking this strategy, at least in regard to this particular case. I decided last night that vileness and nastiness need to be contained, not spread. I don't want to be part of spewing black oil over innocent wildlife - to invoke an all-too-apt metaphor. I want to reduce, not multiply, the amount of vileness and nastiness in the world.

So as of this writing, I'm going to make every possible effort to stop thinking about this. Instead, I am going to follow the supremely wise advice of St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

Amen to that.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

One and a Half Hours a Day

I'm three days in to my new work regimen, launched after my return from New Jersey on Monday. This is the plan to write not an hour a day, as the name of my blog recommends, but a full two hours a day, in order to make my deadline of producing two 125-page books by September 15 to meet the deadlines of my Random House contract.

The plan is to write two hours on my books each day, and to do ONE other thing from my work-related to-do list, plus keep my life going generally (pay bills, answer emails, buy tickets to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, walk with Rowan, take Christopher to his doctor's appt down at University Hospital in Denver for his neck injury, help make plans for Grandpa's funeral, brush my cat - for now I've given up on Moby Dick, but more on that later.)

So far I haven't been able to do it. I did write for one and a half hours on my book on Tuesday, plus wrote comments on a colleague's teaching statement for his upcoming comprehensive review. Wednesday I also wrote for one and a half hours, plus wrote two book reviews for the Children's Literature database. But today I was caught off guard by a FedEx delivery of the first book in the series, with a long editorial letter calling for another (final?) round of revisions. I had already crossed this book off my list, so it was a shock to my system to have it reappear. Luckily, I can work almost endlessly doing revisions, so I toiled mightily all day long (well, for three solid hours), and just emailed it back to her, a much better book. However, alas, I didn't write a single syllable of the current book-in-progress or do a single thing from my work-related to-do list.

It's 6:45 p.m. now. Should I try to do at least something else on some other project, so that I can say I did? Or just congratulate myself on yet another round of revisions done and off my desk? I'm inclining toward the second option.

Off for some self-congratulation involving what's left of a pound bag of Hershey's cherry cordial kisses.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I have a writer friend who has a poltergeist living in her house. Or at least she claims she does. In the past, I've been somewhat skeptical. It just seemed more likely that she was wrong about this than that she was right.

But here's what happened to me just now. I went to a meeting of my summer women's book group at church. My son Christopher handed me his copy of the key to the church so that I could open the church kitchen to get our stash of refreshments, and I put the key on my key ring. I used the key to open the kitchen. Other people saw me do it.

Then, when our meeting had finished, I tried to lock the door of the church. There were two keys on my key ring that I didn't recognize as keys to my house, car, mailbox, or philosophy department offices. I tried both. Neither worked. Other women tried both. Neither worked. I went back in to the church and tried to use both mystery keys to open the church kitchen, which I had opened so easily before. Neither worked.

In despair, I called Christopher and he drove down to church to tell me which mystery key was the correct one. His answer: neither. The church key is square. These keys are not square.

So where is the church key that I put on my key ring? What are these two other keys that I have never seen before?

Now, I admit to not knowing much about poltergeists. I think they live in someone's house. Could there be a poltergeist living in a church? It seems sacrilegious to suppose so.

Could these mystery keys be magical keys? Could the church key somehow have turned into two magical keys? I can see its turning into one magical key, but two? What secret doors do they open?

Right now I see only two possibilities: either I am losing my mind (but NOTHING else untoward has happened lately - nothing except the bizarre transformation of one church key into two mystery keys), or there is some magic operating somewhere. I have to confess that the second possibility, contrary as it is to the laws of science, is nonetheless the more likely.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


We received word, still away on our trip to New Jersey, that Grandpa died last night: my father-in-law, the boys' grandfather, the only grandfather they were privileged to know, as my own father, who would have loved them so much, died before they were ever born. We had celebrated his 99 1/2 birthday just last weekend.

Grandpa is the Grandpa of my Gus and Grandpa books. Although many things that happen in the books are fictional, the character of Grandpa himself is completely true to life. The books celebrated many of our Sunday afternoon pleasures on our weekly excursions down to Grandpa's home in Golden: baking cookies, watching the train go by across the street from his front door, playing with his dog, Shadow (Skipper in the books), searching for well-worn treasures in his closet and back shed.

Like Grandpa in the books, real-life Grandpa was hard of hearing and would turn his hearing aid down when the boys got too noisy, so he never needed to mind their youthful enthusiasm. In one of his trademark Grandpa lines, he once remarked that his hearing aid was broken, but he was waiting to get it repaired "until after the election." Like Grandpa in the books, real life Grandpa was an avid fisherman, lover of opera, and faithful friend to my boys through whatever life brought our way.

Grandpa got a kick from starring in the books. "People pay money for this?" he asked me when I presented the first one to him. He was especially delighted by Catherine Stock's illustrations for the series: "What does she have me doing this time?" Although Catherine had never met Grandpa, or seen a photo, her illustrations of him are remarkably like the man himself - with one exception: Grandpa in the books has a mustache, while real-life Grandpa did not. But then real-life Grandpa went out and grew a mustache to match Catherine's art.

It is hard for me to imagine Sunday afternoons with him.