Sunday, September 29, 2013

Steamboat Stirrings

I'm back from a delightful weekend in Steamboat Springs, a picturesque mountain town about a three-and-a-half-hour's drive from Boulder. I was invited to take part in "Book Feast 2013," organized by the Bud Werner Library in Steamboat, and of course I jumped at the chance to have an excuse for a jaunt to Steamboat just as the aspen were beginning to turn.

Book Feast was a day filled with presentations by children's book authors and storytellers, including Caldecott honoree Steve Jenkins who writes nonfiction books about animals illustrated with his stunning collage art, picture book author Kathleen Pelley whose lilting Scottish accent is a treat for the ears, and historical fiction writer Jeannie Mobley who just won the Colorado Book Award for her debut novel, Katerina's Wish (beating out my own Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, I must note, but I liked her enormously anyway!). I gave a talk first thing in the morning to an auditorium of appreciative kids and parents and led a creative writing workshop (on writing dialogue) in the afternoon. The day was structured so that I got to hear all the other presenters and also had a chance to sign lots of books.

To make the weekend even more fun, my friend Rowan came with me, so the trip doubled as professional opportunity and girlfriend getaway. Rowan packed an exquisite little picnic for us to eat on the drive, where we actually drove past busy snow plows on Muddy Pass (which should be renamed Icy Pass) as we approached Steamboat. She spent Saturday exploring the town while I enjoyed Book Feast, and then we met up for dinner and cozy reading time in our hotel. This morning we hiked up to stunning Fish Creek Falls and then took our time driving home, with plenty of stops to photograph golden foliage.

As I transition toward leaving my university job at the end of this academic year to concentrate on my writing career, I'm going to have less discretionary income, so I'm going to have to find more ways to double my fun as I did this past weekend, piggybacking an outing with a dear friend on top of an author visit, finding new ways to wring a little more happiness from existing resources. This weekend was good practice for blending work and play for a future of frugal contentment.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

School Stories

This week I am working on the most fun assignment ever.

A dear friend, Mark West, who is an inveterate entrepreneur for all things children's literature, has agreed to edit a new publication targeted toward teachers and librarians called RISE: A Children's Literature Journal. He's asked me to contribute an essay on school stories for the inaugural issue, due out in December, as I love school stories and have written so many myself over the past decades.

What a delicious project this is, ever step of it!

Step one: canvassing school story suggestions on Facebook and a children's literature listserv. Ideas poured in, ranging from class British boarding school stories to recent picture books series such as the Miss Fox series by Eileen Spinelli and the Miss Malarkey series by Judy Finchler and Kevin O'Malley, as well as now-classic contemporary stories like Frindle by Andrew Clements and Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos.

Step two: going to the public library and carrying home as many of these books as I could find on the shelves. Each time one was already checked out (which happened quite often for some of these extremely popular titles), I had a pang of disappointment followed by some reasonable relief. My piece is 1500 words! I don't have time or space to read and discuss a hundred books!

Step three (in progress): read, read, read, read, read. Sunday afternoon and evening I tore through Not-So-Weird Emma, Best Friend Emma, and EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken by Sally Warner, as well as The Report Card and Troublemaker by Andrew Clements, after dispatching a dozen picture books. Today I'm going to read Witch Week by Diane Wynne Jones, which came up over and over again on the solicited suggestions, as well re-reading a few titles plucked from my own bulging bookshelves.

Step four (Thursday's goal): write the essay!

I love every single thing about this project. I have an excuse for lots of conversations with fellow children's book lovers, I'm reading a lot of books I've been meaning to read for a long time but never got around to until now, I feel busy and important with an actual writing assignment with its attendant deadline (bliss), and I even have the opportunity to promote my own books, as Mark told me I should talk about the school story from the writer's point of view as well.

Off to read!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Sing Hosanna"

Today was"Fall Kickoff Sunday" at my church here in Boulder. After a summer hiatus, the choir was back in its festive robes, Sunday School resumed, and we had an all-church picnic following worship with tables and folding chairs set up on the shaded church lawn. Fall Kickoff was late this year, postponed because of the horrendous flooding that caused serious damage to the church basement and the parsonage. But once again, as happens every year on this special Sunday, the choir sang the same anthem: "Sing Hosanna" by Kirby Shaw.

Even though I am not a choir member (I love to sing but have a most mediocre voice, as my children will testify), I know every word of "Sing Hosanna" by heart after hearing it so many times; I know every note our organist Wendy plays for the piano accompaniment, too. And I love every word and note. I love them beyond all reckoning.

The last two years I was in Indiana for Fall Kickoff Sunday, enjoying worship at Gobin United Methodist Church in Greencastle, instead of the familiar service at my own St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Boulder. I was so excited about my new Indiana life that I hardly thought about the life I had left behind until some of the choir members, knowing how much I adore their rendition of "Sing Hosanna," posted a video of it for me on Facebook. Watching it, I wept tears of longing to be in the sanctuary listening to it in person once again.

This morning I was NEAR the sanctuary listening to "Sing Hosanna" in person, but I wasn't sitting in my usual pew. I was standing at the rear, just outside the open sanctuary doors, holding in my arms a little dog named Tank, a terrier/chihuahua mix, who is wearing "the cone of shame" after hip surgery performed on a degenerating joint by a wonderfully kind veterinarian in our congregation.

Tank is my daughter-in-law Ashley's little dog. Ashley and Christopher have been living with me, and now Tank has come to live with me, too. He arrived yesterday to my house after his short hospital stay and can't be left alone quite yet, convalescent as he is, as well as adjusting to his new environs. Ashley, Christopher, and I all needed to be at church this morning. Both of them are in the choir, and I was doing a reading during part of the service. Plus, I couldn't miss "Sing Hosanna" this year - not three years in a row! So we took turns slipping away from worship to be with Tank outside on the church grounds.

I couldn't help but think: a year ago, when I saw the video of "Sing Hosanna," I never would have guessed that a year later I'd be listening to it while holding the little dog of my daughter-in-law, who is now four months pregnant with my first grandchild.

I heard that the choir is starting to get tired of performing "Sing Hosanna" for the zillionth time and is staging a rebellion. The choir director told them that there are a few people in the congregation who would be heartbroken if they abandoned it. I was mentioned as one of these. So a dear choir friend came up to me during the picnic after worship to see if I might be willing to give up the sweet familiarity of tradition to allow the choir not to go out of their minds singing the same song over and over again.

I sighed and said, "I guess so."

I'm SO glad I got to hear "Sing Hosanna" again this morning. I would be glad to hear it every Fall Kickoff Sunday for the rest of my life. But my expanding family, my entire life, is full of changes right now. So who am I to refuse to welcome change, wherever it comes?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Snug and Dry

The incessant rain and torrential flooding here in Boulder has filled the national news for several days now. The university was closed both Thursday and Friday because of water damage to some quarter of the buildings on campus; many if not most of my friends are pumping thousands of gallons of water out of their basements; several deaths have been reported, including the great-grandson of a beloved member of my church. We have received more rainfall in the last few days than we usually get in six months. This is the "hundred-year floor" we've been warned about for decades. This is flooding of biblical proportions.

My own little house, however, is snug and dry. Not a drop of water has come in. This is chiefly for two reasons.

First, I have no basement, so ergo, I have no flooded basement. This has made a HUGE difference to my survival of the storm. For some time I have been regretting the fact that my house is so small, now that I have me and my husband, and our son and daughter-in-law, and Snickers-the cat, all living here in 1500 square feet, with an eagerly awaited grandchild due to arrive in March, and even the upcoming arrival of Ashley's little dog, Tank, who has been staying with other relatives while I decided whether I could try adding one more living creature to this tiny space. How nice it would be to have a basement so that the younger generation could disappear down there to watch movies or play video games! Wouldn't that be a good place for a little dog to play, safely out of the way of Miss Snickers, the true owner of this house?

Now, however, the absence of a basement has proved a great boon. Yes, my house is small, but it's completely dry. Yes, there are a lot of people and creatures living in it right now, but we have been baking pear cobbler and ginger snaps; this afternoon we'll bake a cake for Christopher's 25th birthday.

Second, I have a new roof. The only reason I have a new roof is because the overbearing, tyrannical HOA made me get one, as part of making me do some $22,000 worth of work on my house last winter. How mightily I protested! Well, that's not quite true. I didn't actually protest at all to THEM, I hardly ever address my problems in such a constructive way. Instead, I complained mightily to YOU and other friends. I told myself, yes, the old roof did leak a bit in heavy rains, but it wasn't really all that bad; I could have coaxed it along for another year or two . . .

Not! There is no way that old roof would have stood up to this onslaught of rain. So it turns out that the overbearing, tyrannical HOA inspectors were angels in disguise. I have them to thank for the fact that no water dripped on my head over the past few days.

One of my Facebook friends recently posted: "Right now I'm looking for some blessings that AREN'T in disguise." I sympathize. But right now, blessings that came in disguise have turned out to be most welcome.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Potter and Clay

Last Sunday at church the scripture reading was from Jeremiah: "The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 'Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words.' So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. "(Jeremiah 18:1-4 RSV)

The opening hymn was: "Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!Thou art the Potter, I am the clay."

The person giving the children's message brought little tubs of Play-Doh to show the children how much easier it is for God to work with us when our hearts are soft and pliable, like clay, rather than hard and unyielding, like wood or stone.

So of course all this made me think about writing. In particular, it made me think about the revisions I'm struggling with on my cookie jar book, where I'm still uncertain how to reply to critical comments from two of the people in my writing group.

Potters are lucky to work with clay, not marble. The pot gets spoiled in the potter's hand? Smush it back into a pliable lump and place it on the wheel again. I don't know what stone carvers do. They must have some way of recovering from mistakes, as they'd have to be as mistake-prone as any creative person. But it has to be more devastating for them when the chisel slips.

Writers are lucky to work with words. If the words we've written on the page aren't working, we can delete them and write other words in their place. If one plot angle doesn't work, we can veer off in a different direction. If our main character isn't taking sufficient charge of her own story, we can make her do that.  After all, we are the potter. Our story is the clay.

Of course, Jeremiah's potter might have spent considerable time on that first spoiled pot. I certainly spent considerable time on the first draft of the cookie jar book. Time is the one non-renewable resource. We all have a finite amount of it, and so a finite number of pots we can throw and stories we can tell. Still, Jeremiah's potter might have been able to salvage something from his disappointing morning, if only an idea for how he wants the pot to look now. My hunch is that when I make myself sit down to revisions on the cookie jar book, I'll find that I can salvage plenty. Probably all that it needs, really, is a poke here, a dab there, some more clay on this side, less clay on that.

Yes, writing that first draft took time, and writing the next draft will take time, too. But guess what? There is nothing I'd rather spend my time doing than writing, and especially writing books about enchanted cookie jars. It's a rainy day here in Boulder, a good day for thinking about cookies and jars to put them in. It's a good day for being a potter/author, working with her story clay.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Blog Tour!

Today I do something I've never done before. I launch a ten-stop blog tour for my new middle-grade novel, Zero Tolerance. For the first time in my career, I decided to work with a publicist to promote one of my books and hired the truly fabulous Blue Slip Media. Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy have been absolutely terrific to work with. They are enormously knowledgeable about the the world of children's books and enormously supportive of authors. 

For starters, they made me a wonderful discussion guide put together by an experienced curriculum specialist to go with the book.

Then they set up the ten-stop blog tour for me, where every day for ten days I'll be hosted by a different blog. Some are posting a review of the book, some sent me interview questions, some asked me to submit guest posts. The tour launches today on the site Read Now, Sleep Later. I visited the site this morning and was thrilled to find that Alethea, the host blogger, made up apple nacho recipes paired with each character in the book: the Sweet Sierra, the Principal Besser, the Gerald Shepard, Esquire - brilliant! There is also a giveaway of the book today on the School Library Journal website as a "teen giveaway."

Will any of this end up making a difference to sales? It's hard to know. Even if this book sells better than my others, it will be hard to say that the reason is because of my extra promotional efforts or because the book is simply a more alluring read given its more controversial and timely subject matter.

But for now, I have to say that the blog tour is tons of fun, and a lot more fun than what I've heard real life book tours are like, where you fly from city to city, staying lonely in a hotel, going to bookstore appearances where nobody comes. Here I just spent an enjoyable weekend  at home in my nightgown writing blog posts ( I adore writing blog posts) and getting to explore the lovely sites that are hosting me. I'm building relationships with these bloggers, children's book lovers all. And I get to have exceedingly wonderful APPLE RECIPES for my book!

What's not to like about this, I ask?