Thursday, September 30, 2010

Last Day of September

Once upon a time, many years ago, back when I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, I was seeing a therapist/life coach named Judy Alexander. She was wonderful. I still remember so many wise things she said to me.

The one I'm thinking about today is that I would make various goals for the month and then, about halfway through the month, it would occur to me that none of these goals were going to happen. "Oh, well," I'd tell myself. "So much for September." And I'd promptly start pinning all my hopes on October. Certainly by the last days of the month I had given up on trying to achieve anything significant in this go-round. Better luck next time. Well, I was telling this to Judy Alexander on the penultimate day of some month, and she stopped me in my tracks: "You still have two more days," she said.

So on this past Tuesday, with a full THREE more days left in the month, I leapt into action to expand and my revise my paper "Redemption Through the Rural: The Teen Novels of Rosamond Du Jardin," which I delivered at the Children's Literature Association conference in Ann Arbor back in June. It needed a lot of work: consideration of a whole entire book series I hadn't discussed in the conference version of the paper, incorporation of other research done on 1950s teen novels (and first FINDING that research and reading it before I could incorporate it), incorporation of research on social mores of the decade itself, addition of heaps and heaps of scholarly citations.

But I did all that work. I toiled mightily for most of the day on Tuesday, and I got up extra early yesterday to put in two hours on the paper before heading off to teach at the university, and I got up at 4:30 this morning for the final finishing touches. I emailed it off to the journal at 7:00 a.m.

You can do a lot when you realize that you still have three more days before the month is over. Thanks, Judy Alexander!

And now, come to think of it, I still have ten more hours....

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Knitter's Dilemma

One of the little fun activities in my life is being a founding member of the Philosophy Department's knitting group, which has the best possible name for a Philosophy Department knitting group: The Knitted Brow. The Brow meets on Wednesdays from 2-3. We have both knitters and crocheters, at all levels, though chiefly rank beginners.

After many years of knitting I still can't knit anything that has a shape to it: I just knit squares to make afghans and then stitch the squares together. Sometimes I get more ambitious, and the squares have patterns in them, but then there is many an anguished gasp as I realize that I've made a mistake in the pattern, and I need to petition our master knitter, Karen Sites, to help me rip it out and recover my place again.

So here is my dilemma. I am sick unto death of my current knitting project. The squares for this particular afghan are small-ish squares, knit on small-ish needles with a tight weave. It takes (me) forever to knit one. I was knitting them at the rate of one every couple of months, but this semester I've vowed to knit one every single week. And yet, at the end of this semester, knitting at this frantic pace, I'll still have only 25 squares, enough for a blanket 5 x 5 - too small to be a lap blanket, too small even to be a baby blanket, plus it doesn't really have an appealing color scheme for a baby (lots of grays and lavenders).

My choices are: 1) keep going until I have enough squares for a decent-sized blanket - oh, maybe in two more years; 2) give the whole thing up, following my dear friend Ina's favorite piece of advice, "Just because you've begun a mistake, you're under no obligation to continue in it"; 3) finish the blanket off with its pitiful 25 squares and give it to Snickers as a cat blanket.

I'm strongly inclining toward the third option. I hate the thought of dutifully knitting away on this thing for what feels like the rest of my life, but I also hate the thought of simply abandoning all that past toil. The cat blanket seems like a reasonable solution. The guiding thought here is: at least I'll have something. So, given the choice between everything and nothing, I'm choosing something.

It feels like the right choice right now.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Of Iguanas and Their Cages

I have a young and very energetic colleague at CU who told me once that he thinks of himelf as an iguana. Apparently, iguanas grow to fit the size of their cages. Little cage, little iguana. Big cage, big iguana.

Ten minutes ago I met my impossible deadline and sent off book three of my Mason Dixon series: Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters - the day after getting the final editorial okay on my revisions for Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters. Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters is already in production. Each book is 25,000 words long, around 130 pages in my nice readable Courier font. So I wrote close to 400 pages this year. I think they're good pages, too, and I submitted the pages for critique to my writing group and other friends, and revised the pages, and revised them again and again.

I am now a much bigger iguana than I ever thought I could be. Big expectations, big delivery.

We can all do so much more than we ever thought we could.

And now I'm remembering a little poem I loved as a child:

Plan for more than you can do - and do it.
Bite off more than you can chew - and chew it.
Hitch your wagon to a star, keep your seat -
and there you are!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Notes from the SCBWI conference

I spent yesterday at the fabulous fall SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Rocky Mountain chapter conference down in Lakewood, with authors who had come from as far away as Montana and California to attend. I hesitated before signing up to go; I've become sort of a conference snob in recent years, wanting to be invited to speak on the program so that I can go for free, rather than paying out of pocket to attend. But I've spoken at plenty of SCBWI conferences over the years, so this was my turn just to sit there with my little notebook and soak it all in. I'm glad I did.

I started the day by doing three paid critiques for other conference attendees who had signed up for this additional conference perk - always a bit dicey, as some people don't really want a critique session from a fellow author; they want a critique session from one of the attending editors or agents, preferably one who will offer them a contract on the spot. But my three authors were all wonderfully appreciative and obviously eager to grow as writers. I fell in love with all three.

The opening keynote address was by super-star Bruce Coville, who managed to be both funny and inspirational. He took as his topic the seven deadly sins and seven shining virtues of writers. Of the traditional list of seven deadly sins, only one, sloth, made it onto his revised list, rounded out by : dullness, repetition, cliche, inattention, perfectionism, and clumsiness (lack of craft). His seven shining virtues were: passion (replacing chastity), sensuousness (replacing temperance), wisdom, guile, humor, courage, and joy. I want to write with courage now! I want to write with joy!

Traci L. Jones, winner of a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent award for African-American authors, gave a talk on writing a multicultural book that had everybody singing her praises for the rest of the day. On the one hand, Traci encouraged authors to write outside of their culture (e.g., she sees herself writing chiefly, not about African-American characters, but about "misfits" who happen to be African-American: "Misfits can come in any color") - but on the other hand, she showed us just how much respectful effort is going to be involved in doing this - all those telling details re speech patterns, family expectations, skin color - anad HAIR!

I also attended a session on social media by an impressive 20-something guy, Drew Shope, who runs a business called Thrive that helps the non-media-savvy get up to speed. I learned that more people played Farmville last year on Facebook than have played Pacman in the entire history of the game. He said "The website is dead" - who knew? It's all blogs now. Apparently!

Egmont editor Elizabeth Law was a hoot (but a helpful hoot) in her session on managing your writing career. Best advice: band together with other authors for collective promotion. I also think I'm now going to make available online some cool stuff connected with my recent books - so be on the lookout!

The whole day was glorious.

I love being a writer. I love being part of the world of writers and writing.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Happiness 101

In my Intro to Ethics class, we've finished Aristotle and are on to my favorite, most beloved, Epictetus. In my Philosophy through Literature class, focused on the search for utopia, we've finished Plato's Republic and are on to Thomas More's Utopia, which gave the genre its name. Both classess are going well, I think, as we pursue the questions of what makes for a happy life and what makes for a happy society.

At the philosophy department knitting group, The Knitted Brow, on Wednesday, one graduate student asked me what my own personal secret of happiness is. I've blogged about this before, but I told her some of what I've written about here:

1) I rely on my four Pillars of Happiness: writing, reading, walking, spending time with friends. All are free. All are totally within my control. I can have all of them in my life every single day.

2) I plan five Episodes of Happiness every day. I self-consciously look ahead at my day to make sure that it contains at least five sure-fire stretches of time that will make me happy - and so that I won't fail to notice one when it occurs! Lately one of them each morning is lying in a bed for a few extra minutes, with the window open and a cool breeze blowing, snuggling with my cat, Snickers, who conforms her body to mine so comfortingly. One of them is walking a mile or so in the beauty of the morning before I get on the Skip to go to work. One of them has been reading a few chapters of David Copperfield every evening on my new Kindle, which I love (a topic for another occasion!), but I finished it last night. That means I have to rustle up at least two more each day: today one was lunch with my friend Leah and her adorable second-grade daughter, Sadie, and one was an evening walk with my friend Rowan, as the streetlamps were gleaming on the water of Viele Lake. There were other happy moments, too - reading a friend's manuscript this morning, one wonderful meeting with a student who brought me a stunningly improved second draft of her Aristotle paper, so one of those can count retroactively to round out my list of five.

3) I hold fast to some of my happiness mantras. The one I've been thinking about most lately I found on a calendar Grandpa gave me with art painted by foot-and-mouth artists who have lost the use of their hands but paint beautifully anyway. The quote was: "Be intent on the perfection of the present day." I don't know who said it, but I love it. "Be intent on the perfection of the present day." What can I do to make today just a little bit more satisfying? I need to do more with realizing this goal. Tonight when I ate my microwave-warmed leftovers from last night's dinner with my boys at Chez Thuy, I should have taken it outside on my pretty patio to eat slowly and mindfully, savoring the golden evening, instead of wolfing it down at the table. Oh, well.

It was still a happy day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Post-Partum Depression

While I'm not completely done, done, done with my Mason Dixon series, at this very moment book two has been revised according to my editor's excellent suggestions and emailed back to her, awaiting her approval or request for more changes, and book three is in the hands of my writing group; two of them have given me their comments, but I don't want to leap into revisions until I hear from the rest, for fear of inefficiency. Why work hard to revise scene x, if I may just end up eliminating scene x? As my erstwhile writing teacher Dennis Foley said, why spend a lot of time wallpapering a wall that is going to come down? Or that may well come down?

So as of this very moment, I have no writing-related task hanging over my head. I do have a novel due next spring, but it isn't hanging over my head right now.

Alas, what IS hanging over my head right now is all the little work-related tasks that I postponed to make my full-court press on writing the series, as well as all the work-related tasks generated by the new semester: preparing classes, grading papers, reading grad student work, meeting with my freshmen to help them work on their first paper, writing recommendation letters for doctoral students heading out on the job market.

It's been less than a week since I sent off Mason Dixon II to my editor and Mason Dixon III to my writing group, and already I miss writing desperately. While there is much about my job that is exhilarating and satisfying - I do love being in the classroom, I do love meeting with students, I do love being a mentor to students, I do love being part of the rich and stimulating world of the university - there is nothing in this world I love as much as I love putting words down on paper.

I wish I had ten contracts, with ten impending impossible deadlines! I really do.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Enough Disasters?

The county where I live, Boulder County, is now experiencing the devastation of the worst forest fire in Colorado history; everyone I know, including me, knows someone who has lost a home, burned to the ground. So there are disasters aplenty right now in my corner of the world.

However, my editor at Knopf/Random House told me that she thought there weren't quite enough disasters in my second book in the Mason Dixon series, Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters - not enough disasters to warrant such a disaster-advertising title.

Now, I did NOT want to change this title. I think it's catchy and kid-pleasing.

What I did want to do was point out to her, hey, there are LOTS of disasters in this book! And start itemizing them all in case she had forgotten any, despite her having given the manuscript two careful readings. I stopped myself just in time. For the author truly cannot accompany every reader of the book to point out disasters the reader might otherwise have missed, or hand out printed lists of the disasters for easy reference.

Hmm. What to do....

I decided that the best thing to do, short of rewriting the book entirely to up its disaster quotient, was to make more of the disasters I already have. After all, none of these are disasters in the Four Mile Fire sense. What they are is disasters to Mason, to this particular fourth grade kid. If Mason feels the disasters more, feels them AS disasters, readers will feel them more, too.

So I've been revising like a fiend, and I just sent off the revised manuscript an hour ago, luxuriating in Mason's now-heightened dread and misery.

Disasters can be in the eye of the beholder. That is to say, of the character. And then, I hope, of the reader.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Think It Up, Write It Up, Fix It Up

Two years ago, after having published over forty books, I took my first-ever writing course, a terrific online writing course from writing guru Dennis Foley. One of Dennis's pieces of wisdom was that there are three stages of writing: think it up, write it up, fix it up. He said that writers should spend VASTLY more time on the first and third than on the second. Indeed, he said that if writers were spending enough time on "think it up," they should be able to "write it up" lickety-split: in short, intense fifteen-minute bursts.

I think Dennis is brilliant, but this is one piece of advice I've been unable to take (I also can't take his advice to turn off my computer monitor screen as I type!). The truth is that I'm just not able to do "think it up" AT ALL. I really do my thinking only when I have pen in hand. Alas, I can't think about my characters and the challenges they face as I walk to work, or knit, or sit on the bus. They are real for me only when I'm actually writing. I don't know what they are going to do until THEY do it, what they are going to say until THEY say it. I do have some vague idea, of course, dictated by the constraints given by the form of a novel: for example, if I'm writing Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, I know that Mason's team can't win their first game, and then their second game, and then their third game, and then the championship game. I do know that much! But how exactly they are going to lose the preliminary games, and how each game is going to advance the overall story, I don't know until I am IN the game myself.

This makes writing sessions exhilarating, but also fraught with terror. What if NOTHING happens? What if the magic doesn't appear, if the characters don't come alive and take over? Fortunately, they always do. But what if THIS TIME they don't? But they do.

I just finished the final chapter of the first full draft of Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters this morning, the rematch game between the Fighting Bulldogs (Mason's hitherto doomed team) and the Killer Whales (the team of Mason's nemesis, Dunk Duncan). I knew the Bulldogs had to win - of course they did, or it wouldn't be a satisfying story. And I knew that there would have to be some moment of connection/reconciliation between Mason and Dunk - but how?

Oh, if only I could think it up first, writing would be easier. But at least, I knew that Mason and Dunk would make it happen somehow.

And they did.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Workers' Dilemma

Here is the dilemma for those of us who are writers employed as well in some other profession:

The more you put into your job, the more you get out of your job.
But the more you put into your job, the less time and energy you have to put into your writing.

This semester I have decided to put more into my job. For the first time in years, I'm not teaching an overload at CU, just the normal load of two courses a semester. So I've decided that I can take on some additional work-related projects. One of my two courses is a course I've never taught before, Philosophy through Literature, so that means a lot of preparation. I'm also doing a little independent study class with three wonderful graduate students, which is really like a third class as we're meeting twice a week with tons of reading. I'm advising two doctoral dissertations, one undergraduate honors thesis (an existentialist play!), and doing another independent study with an undergraduate student. I'm our department's teaching mentor, charged with supervising our graduate student teachers, observing their classes, writing reports for their file.

And, best of all, I'm part of a grant the university received to do a seminar and symposium this academic year on fairy tales. I've been wild with excitement about the fairy tale meeting, which was held yesterday. I was happy every time I looked in my planner and saw it written there: FAIRY TALE MEETING. But somehow, at the meeting yesterday, I committed myself to give a public lecture on recent children's literature adaptations of a classic fairy tale some time in November.

This is going to be work. I haven't even chosen the fairy tale yet, I haven't looked for the adaptations, and I haven't thought of anything (profound and scholarly and insightful) to say about the fairy tale.

But it's also going to be fun, tons of fun, and we're planning a foreign film series on fairy tales, with discussion to follow each film, and other professors will be giving talks, too, and I'll get to attend their talks. What could be more fun than a semester stuffed full of fairy tales?

And yet . . . I still haven't finished revisions on the second book of my Mason Dixon series or finished writing the third book (though I got through half of Chapter 11, of 13 projected chapters, this morning). And then I have a novel to write after that, due in March, which I want to make the best book I've ever written, my masterwork, the book that will break me out of midlist and be an enduring classic! So maybe I shouldn't have committed to give this fairy tale talk?

No. I'm glad I did. Because one thing I've noticed is that fun work doesn't drain us, it energizes us. Sometimes the more we give to our work, the more it gives back to us.

At least this is my working hypothesis right this minute.