Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I've often noticed that sometimes seemingly big problems in a manuscript are the easiest to fix, while seemingly minor problems are the hardest to fix. For example, changing the whole theme of the book, its lasting impact on the reader, can sometimes be accomplished by tweaking a single paragraph focusing on the protagonist's epiphany moment. Whereas fixing a small glitch in the book's timeline can involve extensive rewriting and reorganization.

When I was writing Lizzie at Last, I had a couple of football game scenes. Like my younger self, Lizzie hates football, but also like my younger self, she gets lured into attending a few games as part of her project to become more popular. When I wrote the first draft, I had the games take place on Saturday afternoons, like high school football games in my youth. But then I found out that nowadays high school football games are played on Friday nights. Massive rewrite! All these scenes that were to have after other scenes now came before them - horrible!

Right now I'm working on Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters. The action of the book begins in November, as Mason begins his first-ever doomed basketball season. But well into writing the book, I remembered, oh, I'll have to deal with Thanksgiving! Maybe even with Christmas! I didn't want to deal with these holidays, but I also can't just pretend they didn't happen in Mason's life. Holidays are important.

I studied the local YMCA basketball schedule and saw that I can finish Mason's season before Christmas, if the first game is on November 6 and the last game is on December 18. Whew! But I still have to account for Thanksgiving somehow. And I wanted the book to begin with the start of the new trimester at school - but perhaps now, it should be the start of the new quarter, if I'm shifting the basketball season earlier to finish before winter break? The kids were studying the age of exploration in social studies in the previous book - can they now be on to colonial times? Oh, arranging the calendar for a book is a huge and complex jigsaw puzzle.

Sometimes, though, the challenges of arranging a book's calendar can bring with them unexpected delights. In this current book, I knew that Mason was going to have to have a climactic moment in his war with next-door neighbor Mrs. Taylor, who doesn't like dogs, and seems to be persecuting Mason's beloved dog, Dog. Mason has just behaved badly to Mrs. Taylor, though not without justification. Mason's mother is going to make him apologize. Not with a nice note written in his best cursive, but in person. Where and how should the apology scene take place?

Hey, what if Mason's kind-hearted mother invites lonely Mrs. Taylor to Thanksgiving at Mason's house?! Ooh! That could work! It really could!

But I'm still glad that in this book I don't have to write about Christmas.

Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Attend a Department Meeting

After eighteen years as a member of the University of Colorado Philosophy Department - eighteen! - I have finally learned how to attend a department meeting:

1) Don't sit at the big main table. Sit on the couch over in the corner.
2) Sit with the other people who have chosen to sit on the couch over in the corner.
3) Knit!

What a difference this strategy makes! I used to get all hot and bothered about various ultimately trivial issues, flushing with anger, raising my voice, getting drawn into the fray.

Forget the fray! Instead, I have now learned the sweet pleasures of the fringe.

To the right of me, a colleague was reading something on his laptop; to the left of me, another colleague was reading some kind of manuscript - it might have had something to do with the topic of the meeting, or not. In between the two of them, I knitted. I have made a commitment this semester to my fellow knitters in our Philosophy Department knitting group, the Knitted Brow, to complete one square a week for my perpetually unfinished afghan, so I knit without guilt - nay, with a steadfast sense of virtue. I completed my square and slipped briefly out of the meeting to clip my yarn (I had forgotten to bring a pair of scissors); I cast on a new square when I returned.

It was somewhat hard to hear from our out-of-the-way corner. I voted yes whenever the rest of them voted yes. There was no occasion on which I needed to vote no. I tuned in periodically, when a favorite colleague was speaking. For the rest, I kept track of my knitting and purling.

There was one unfortunate moment when I got too absorbed in departmental business and had to rip out a row, but I took care of it without any audible sighs or moans.

After eighteen years, in one day, I finally figured out how to attend a Philosophy Department meeting.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Semester Begins

Classes began on CU on Monday. I'm teaching two courses: Intro to Ethics in one of the CU Residential Academic Programs (the students all live in the Farrand dorm, and the class is held in the Farrand dorm, so I walk by their decorated dorm room doors on my way to our classroom - fun!), and Philosophy through Literature.

I've taught Intro to Ethics a million times - once five times in a single year (twice each semester, once in a large-lecture format to 150 students with grading done by graduate student TAs, once at Farrand, and then in Maymester); I truly never get tired of it. I could talk to freshmen about Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Shambhala (neo-Buddhism) every day for the rest of my life with undiminished enthusiasm.

I've never taught Philosophy through Literature before. No one in our department has taught the course in well over a decade. It was in danger of being permanently canceled unless somebody taught it, and I thought, well, hey, I like philosophy and I like literature, so let's give it a try. I've structured the course around the search for perfection, both individual and societal. We're starting with Plato's Republic, then reading some classic utopian literature (Thomas More, Edward Bellamy), B. F. Skinner's Walden Two, then an environmental utopia (Ecotopia) and a feminist utopia (Woman on the Edge of Time), and finishing up with a book about efforts toward perfection in modern medicine (Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream).

After my long summer at home writing, writing, writing, I had forgotten how exhausting and exhilarating teaching is - like improv theater, where the audience can come up with ANYTHING and you have to be prepared for it, whatever it is. I spend the hours before teaching in nervous stage fright (this after 18 years of doing it), and then I have the adrenaline rush of the teaching itself, and then the post-teaching buzz. It will settle down a bit by next week, as I get to know the students and have the classroom dynamics more under control.

But for now, it's opening week for the new show.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Don't Think, Write"

I'm back from my restorative, rejuvenating writing group retreat. Some years we've gone to see a movie while we were up at Lake Dillon - Seabiscuit one year, Julie and Julia last year; one year we went canoeing, sometimes Marie plays her guitar and we sing favorite sixties songs.

This year all we wanted to do was write. Marie sat typing toward a new story at her laptop, Phyllis was furiously taking notes for a forthcoming nonfiction book, I scribbled away on Chapter 7 of Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters.

We did discuss this year's Newbery Winner, When You Reach Me, on Friday night. As I predicted, all five of us adored the book. When we did our ranking of this Newbery against the sixteen others we've read together, it scored in the top THREE, just behind Holes and The Giver, the first Newbery we've totally and completely loved in the decade since Bud and Buddy, in 2000.

We loved Rebecca Stead's wise and generous Newbery acceptance speech, too, especially in contrast to the shocking display of ego in the speech by last year's winner, Neil Gaiman. I think we loved best how Rebecca quotes the writing advice she heard in another speech by Laurie Halse Anderson: "Don't think. Write." Rebecca told her audience that she labeled her computer file for When You Reach Me, "don't think."

I think it was this advice from Laurie and Rebecca that helped us to have such a wonderful wekeend of writing, writing, writing. We didn't think. We wrote. There will be time for thinking later. And with the assistance of a supportive and insightful critique group like mine, the burden of the thinking can be shared.

This was our time to write.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Off to Lake Dillon

This is the weekend of my writing group's annual retreat up at Lake Dillon - hooray!

Tonight we'll follow our tradition of discussing the current year's Newbery winner: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, followed by our read-aloud of the Newbery acceptance speech published in Horn Book - we pass my issue of Horn Book around the room, each of us reading aloud a page. Then we'll vote on how this year's Newbery ranks against the last 17 or so that we've read together, beginning with Lois Lowry's The Giver. I haven't shared my view of When You Reach Me with my writing group yet - we try not to discuss it until we all can discuss it together - but let me just say that my hunch is that it will rank pretty high, unlike last year's drumming of The Graveyard Book.

Tomorrow we'll have a glorious daytime critique session in the morning, our only daytime critique all year. I always try to bring something especially significant for the retreat critique. Last year I brought the first chapter of the first book in my proposed chapter book series; this year I'll be getting critique on the entire finished book. And actually, my writing trajectory here is a bit more complicated. I started writing Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters last summer and shared chapters of it with my group throughout the fall, but then set it aside because it just wasn't working. I turned instead to what was supposed to have been book three in the series: Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters. I wrote that book in its entirety, with help from my writing group, and that is the book I sold as the first book in the series to Random House. Then I returned to Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters, now that I understood the characters better. It's the full draft of Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters that I handed out to my group a couple of weeks ago, and on which I'll get their verdict tomorrow. What was to have been the second book, Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, is now going to be the third book. Confusing! So I have definitely come full cycle on the book to be discussed on the retreat.

For the rest of the weekend we'll walk, read, write, talk, eat, talk, eat. I hope Marie will bring her guitar so we can sing.

It's all going to be wonderful.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back to School

I took my younger son, Gregory, to college on Tuesday; luckily for me, he'll be attending CU, as a jazz studies major (saxophone), also fitting in computer science courses where he can. Classes start for him, and for me, on Monday. So school bells are starting to ring! One of my friends was reduced almost to (happy) tears because her 23-year-old son is going back to school and just went out and bought himself some NOTEBOOKS. What is more redolent of back-to-school than the purchase of promising new notebooks?

When I was growing up in New Jersey, my usually frugal mother would have her only shopping spree of the year, taking my sister and me to buy school supplies at the nearby Great Eastern Mills store. We would fill the shopping cart with everything our little hearts desired: notebooks, of course, and binders, and filler paper, and Bic pens. One year we got pencil boxes that had some kind of map on the front where you could turn a little wheel and find out the capitals of all the countries in Europe, or at least I have a dim memory of such a splendid thing. Rulers. Erasers. Little boxes of "reinforcements" for two cents. The night before the first day of school, we would sit together and "pack our notebooks," getting them all organized with subject dividers.

By the time my boys went to school, the list of school supplies had grown much longer and much more expensive, with supplies purchased not by maternal whim but from a list of extremely specific items generated by each school: a box of 24 pastel chalk crayons, four notebooks with wide-ruled paper, a solar-powered calculator, a ruler with both inches and centimeters. It became a scavenger hunt, a treasure hunt, to find them all.

Now Gregory can just go over to the CU book store and buy his own school supplies, though I did go with him to buy his textbooks, unable to resist one last back-to-school spree. And maybe I'll take myself on a spree of my own and stock up on some back-to-school treasures just for me. A new Moleskine notebook - ahhh! Colored paper clips. Multi-colored rubber bands in a nicely squeezable rubber band ball. . . .

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Advice Not Taken

Lately I've been asking people for advice about a variety of problems in my personal and professional life and then not taking it.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the advice is bad advice; sometimes it's advice that I know I should take and well may get around to taking one of these days, when I'm more psychologically ready to take it but I'm just not ready for it right now; sometimes the advice is good advice, generally, but just not good advice for ME. Sometimes our resistance to taking what we can even recognize as good advice can play a helpful role in figuring out who we truly are and what we truly value: yes, this is good advice for getting x, but now that I realize that THIS is the price of getting x, I think I'd rather not get x, after all.

An example: I was recently given the piece of advice that among other things I should do to advance my career as an author is to have a better photo taken - and for the photo I should wear makeup. This is advice I asked for and paid for, as part of a consultation I solicited on promoting my new book. But this is advice I don't want to take. I have to admit that I doubt that I would sell a single additional copy of a single one of my books just because I looked more attractive in my photo. Nor do I think that I would look more attractive while wearing makeup. But mostly, I just wouldn't look like ME if I were wearing makeup. And for better or worse, I've decided that even IF this is good advice, and I would sell more books if I had a photo of a made-up me, I'd rather look like who I am, even though I'm not that wild about how I look and frankly can't stand to look at a photo of myself, or even to look in the mirror except to see if my part is straight in the morning.

In junior high school one day some girlfriends did a makeover of me after school, for fun, and put makeup all over me. I didn't like it. Then once as an adult, I let some makeup lady at a department store makeup counter try the same experiment. I didn't like it. Maybe if I had an opportunity to go on TV, say, for that Today show appearance authors get the day after they win the Newbery, I might consider it for that one occasion. But that hasn't happened yet. And I don't think wearing makeup for a photo is going to get me any closer to winning the Newbery.

So I'm not going to take this advice. But I did get a lot of other excellent suggestions from this promotion consultation that I AM going to take. Best, I got a good shot-in-the-arm, kick-in-the-pants to get me started on making more serious efforts to promote my books. So I'm going to take a ton of other good advice.

But I'm not going to wear makeup for a publicity photo. That's just not who I am.
(That's me, without makeup, below.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Basketball Blues

I've finished writing the first three chapters of Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters. When I proposed this as the third book in the series, I forgot one little tiny thing: I don't know anything about basketball.

At the time I was just thinking of an activitiy that could work within the structure that I had created. In each book, inveterate curmudgeon Mason resists engaging in some activity forced upon him by his well-meaning but overly anxious parents: Oh, Mason, you're an only child, it would be so good for you to have a pet! (Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters). Oh, Mason, you're starting fourth grade, and we know you hate being up on stage singing, but it would be so good for you to join the all-school singing group! (Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters). Oh, Mason, you've never done a team sport, and it would be so good for you to try one! (Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters).

Now, I don't know much about pets, either, but I do have the experience of acquiring my first-ever pet at the age of fifty, my now-adored cat Snickers. I did sing in girls' choir in high school, and my boys were in the Mesa Elementary School singing group, the Mesa M&Ms - indeed, every kid in Mesa was in the group, even though it met before school and was technically voluntary. But when it comes to basketball - well, my boys WERE on basketball teams, for a couple of years apiece. And I'm actually the author of another book about basketball, Gus and Grandpa at Basketball, which was named an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year, so you might even say that I'm the author of an award-winning book about basketball. Still, the manuscript for that book was 1000 words long. It didn't have real scenes of basketball action, where one character fakes to the left as another charges to the right and then sinks a basket with a certain kind of shot - layup? hook? jump? Help!!

So I went to the library last week and got a bunch of nonfiction kids' books on basketball, which I read. At least I know the names of the positions now and that you aren't supposed to double dribble. And after all, Mason doesn't know anything about basketball, either. He's going to have to learn all this, too.

Best, I hit upon the idea of having his very reluctant and clueless dad get roped into being the coach for the team. His dad orders a book online, a book on basketball coaching for the baffled parent - which I just ordered myself yesterday. So Mason's dad and I can figure this out together.

And in a book called Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, I guess the more basketball disasters for all of us, the better.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Waiting to Exhale

The hardest thing, maybe, about my new, more intense writing schedule these days is having to go ahead on book three before I have ANY feedback at all on book two. I delivered the manscript of book two to my writing group last week, but I don't expect to get comments from anybody until our retreat, the end of the month, and I won't send it to my editor for her comments until after I revise it from their comments, and so I won't get comments from her until well after the due date for the third book.

So of course I keep tormenting myself with questions: But what if everybody HATES book two? What if I'm on the completely wrong track with this series? And now I'm going even farther down that wrong track? Past the point of NO RETURN?

I see this soul-sapping self-doubt in our philosophy graduate students all the time, when they are writing their dissertations. They'll give a chapter to their faculty advisor, who may take a month or longer to read it, and during that month, instead of plunging ahead on the next chapter, they sit paralyzed, unable to proceed until they receive some kind of blessing on the previous chapter. This is why it takes people forever to write a dissertation.

I don't have the luxury of paralysis this time around. I simply have to write book three without any official blessing yet conferred upon book two. This is a hard thing, but it is also a good thing. It means I have to answer my own questions, posed to myself above, in this way:

Look, it is exceedingly unlikely that everybody will hate book two, given that everybody loved book one. It's exceedingly unlikely that I am completely on the wrong track with this book. Both are possible, yes, but, again, exceedingly unlikely. And I know from experience how easy it is to fix even major problems with a book. There will be problems with book two - probably major ones. But I will be able to fix them. And how much better it will be to be fixing them with book three already in good shape, rather than not yet even begun.

Yes, it is so much better just to keep writing, in faith that the blessing, although not here yet, is on its way. One way or another, sooner or later, the blessing is always on its way.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Two Books Down, One to Go

The first book in my Mason Dixon series, Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters, which I delivered to my editor the end of May and revised in June, is now in copyediting. The second book, Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters, I finished this past Tuesday - the first full draft, which is now in the hands of my writing group, awaiting their critique to be presented to me at our retreat later this month. I began the third book, Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, this morning, writing madly and merrily to complete chapter one. I did start thinking about it yesterday, Thursday, which means that I basically had one day off between books.

This is one day more than Anthony Trollope would have taken. In his autobiography, one of the books I read over and over again, he writes:

"While I was in Egypt [on business for the British post office, where he was employed as a full-time, high-ranking civil servant], I finished Doctor Thorne, and on the following day began The Bertrams. I was moved now by a determination to excel, if not in quality, at any rate in quantity. An ignoble ambition for an author, my readers will no doubt say. But not, I think, altogether ignoble, if an author can bring himself to look at his work as does any other workman. This had become my task, this was the furrow in which my plough was set, this was the thing the doing of which had fallen into my hands, and I was minded to work at it with a will. It is not on my conscience that I have ever scamped my work. My novels, whether good or bad, have been as good as I could make them. Had I taken three months of idleness between each they would have been no better."

I'm hoping this is true for me, as well, that one day of idleness between books is plenty. Actually, because these books are all part of a series, I think it helps to leap directly from one to the next, with the voices of the characters still ringing in my ears. I won't have time to forget about them. More important, I won't have time to let that other terrible voice of self-doubt start to whisper, "But are your books any good? Are they any good at ALL?" No time for that, no time, no time!

Which is, I think, a very good thing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Inspirational Story

My biographer friend Robin shared with me this wonderful story, drawn from Debby Applegate's opening remarks at the recent BIO (Biographers International Organization)conference, held in Boston in May.

Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America, a biography of Henry Ward Beecher, told her audience how she submitted the first two chapters of her contracted biography to her editor, only to meet with stunned silence in the face of their appalling awfulness. She confesses that she had absolutely no idea how to craft a compelling story out of her mountains of research. When she asked her editor for a clue on how to proceed, the editor replied, "I don't know what to tell you." Two months later, her contract was summarily cancelled.

Undaunted, "bloody but unbowed," Debby went out and did whatever she could do to learn her craft, reading everything she could find not only on writing biography, but on writing fiction, as well. She started all over again, with the goal of writing a biography that had a plot, strong characters the reader could care about, and a powerful emotional connection with the reader.

The book was published.

It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2007.

Here's the link to a video of her talk; the discussion of her book project begins at around 5:00:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Done! (for now)

I wrote the last chapter of a book this morning: the very last chapter, page, sentence, and word.

Oh, it felt good!

I hadn't expected to finish so soon, but last night at my writing group, I discovered that Annie was heading out of town TOMORROW, so if I wanted to get copies of the full manuscript to all my critique group members in time for them to read it before our August 20-22 retreat, today was the day to make the huge push to get it done.

And I did. I was an unstoppable writing fiend!

Of course, after I get their comments, there will be a round of major revisions before I send it off to my editor for my August 31 deadline, and then I know there will at least one and probably two more rounds of major revisions after that. But still. As of this minute, the book is off my desk and delivered into the hands of my trusted writing friends (as soon as I finished printing it, I leapt into the car to drive it to their doorsteps).

I am on track to meet my deadline, the deadline that seemed so impossible just a short month ago. I have now decided that huge impossible tasks are just made up of lots and lots of smaller possible tasks. I did my daily small possible tasks, and now I have one glorious big impossible task to cross off my to-do list for August, and on August 3, no less.

I am going to celebrate right now by lying on my bed and reading a couple of chapters of the biography of Beatrix Potter that I began yesterday. Peter Rabbit and Jemina Puddleduck, here I come!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hard or Easy?

Here is my question for today: is writing hard or easy? Or rather, is writing SUPPOSED to be hard or easy? Two estimable books on writing offer diametrically opposed views on the topic.

In favor of hard, Annie Dillard in The Writing Life:
"It takes years to write a book - between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant." For Annie, while writing "a favorite, difficult book. . . the very thought of writing a word or two further made me tired. How could I add a sentence, or a paragraph, every day to this work I myself could barely understand?" To do so, she survived on cigarettes and coffee, drinking it until "the top of my stomach felt bruised or burned - was this how mustard gas tasted? I drank the fourth mug without looking at it, any more than you could look at the needle in a doctor's hand." Later she "walked out on the beach unseeing and fell back in the door, sick, dead, dying." Dying from the arduous labor of being a writer.

In favor of easy, Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write:
"I used to have to drive myself to work. You cannot imagine what an uncomfortable, effortful thing it was to be supposed to be a writer. . . . After three hours of work, I would be pithed and exhausted. I could not work in the afternoon or evening at all, because I was absolutely certain I would not be bright then. All fear and conceit." Instead, Brenda says, she learned that "you should feel while writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten- happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead after another."

Now, reading these two passages, I find myself on the side of Brenda Ueland. I love her brisk dismissal of the writer's alleged agonies as so much "fear and conceit." For me, when the writing is going best, I DO feel like that contented kindergartner.

Yet, I feel obliged to note that Annie Dillard won a Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, whereas I never heard of anything Brenda Ueland wrote except for this wonderful treasure on the art of writing itself. So maybe Annie has the evidence on her side? Still, all that "refried coffee"! And those chain-smoked cigarettes! Whereas I would rather drink my nice Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and maybe nibble at some gumdrops, and be happy while I'm writing. I have a feeling that the odds are against my becoming a Pulitzer-prize winner, anyway. So I might as well be happy while I actually DO the writing.

And today, I am.