Monday, December 29, 2014

Facing Revisions

It's been two weeks now since I got the fabulous, extensive, probing critical comments on my novel-in-progress from my new writing group. Today I finally faced what I need to do to revise the book before submitting it to my publisher the first week of the new year.

It's so scary, facing a massive revision. In this case, I had comments from six other writers. Most were sent to me on electronic files of the manuscript, using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word. So even the logistics of processing the comments proved daunting. How could I keep track of six different sets of changes in six different files? Some comments were huge, others were tiny. Which ones to tackle first? Worst, some contradicted each other. Whose advice should I follow?

Step one for me, which I did right away, so as to feel less overwhelmed, was to go through each manuscript transcribing the comments onto one master copy. My system here is to insert the comments all in caps, directly into my text. Tiny comments I just deal with right away. This goes against some excellent writing advice that says to make big changes first, so you don't spent time wallpapering a wall that will just be torn down. But I find it so cheering to deal with low-hanging fruit so I can feel that at least I've accomplished something.

Step two for me was to let some time go by so that I could have a little more distance from the manuscript. Here Christmas was a fortunate distraction.

Step three was what I did today: simply facing the revisions themselves. I was buoyed by a quotation from Joseph Conrad that my sister posted on Facebook in honor of his December birthday: "Facing it - always facing it - is the way to get through."

So today I faced the revisions. I started in Chapter One and made what changes I could. Whenever I panicked about cutting a scene, I saved it into an "outtakes" file so I'd stress less about hitting the delete key. I focused most on one particular revision issue: the not-so-small matter of clarifying what the story, at its most basic level, is about. With the help of the writing group comments, I realized that certain early scenes were actually red herrings, leading the reader's attention astray. I loved those scenes. They are now gone. (Well, moved to the outtakes file.) I need to write at least one new scene to fill a hole left by their deletion; I'll do that later. Today I just focused on getting the bare bones of the structure of the book's "through story" in place.

Next up will be figuring out the back story of Autumn's brother, Hunter. And what exactly is going on with her crush on Cameron, and can I make her attraction to him more believable? I need to add new scenes toward the end of the book to show onstage developments that I had lazily allowed to happen offstage. There is plenty more to do, believe you me!

But today I faced the revisions.Tomorrow I'll face them again. For "facing it - always facing it - is the way to get through."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Merry Little Christmas

A number of years ago I was explaining to my son Gregory that one of my favorite Christmas songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," has a strong undertone of sadness to it. Even the title is suffused with wistfulness: the merry little Christmas. And then those haunting lines that follow: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow." What are the odds that the fates are going to allow that? "From now on our troubles will be out of sight." Really? In what human life is that going to be true?

Gregory, with his ever-present gift for sarcasm, tried to ridicule my song analysis by providing a parallel deconstruction of other Christmas songs. "It's the hap-hap-happiest time of the year" - ah, this shows the clear bravado of the songwriter trying to talk himself, and us, into accepting extravagant and unfounded claims for the stress-filled month of December....

But I was right: beneath the surface (or even on the surface) of many beloved Christmas songs lies a profound melancholy. "I'll be home for Christmas - if only in my dreams." "Rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing." And then there's John Lennon's hymn of resignation: "And so this is Christmas."

I read a beautiful essay yesterday, "In Praise of Melancholy": "Melancholy is a species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a disorder that needs to be cured."We experience melancholy because the things we love are transient, regret is endemic to human life, and conflicts are inescapable between goods that cannot be simultaneously achieved, e.g., to feel secure and yet be free. And these regrets and conflicts loom especially large, I might add, as the year draws to its close.

Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus also see in the promise of this holy night the looming shadow of the cross to come. And we know just how far we are from realizing the angelic promise of peace on earth, good will to humankind.  We've been telling this same story for nigh on 2000 years, and where has it gotten us?

For me, personally, the melancholy of the season lies this year in my imminent return to Indiana, where I'll teach one more semester at DePauw. In less than a month I'll be in my sweet little room in Greencastle, living with my dear friend Julia, in the place where as I was as happy as I've ever been in my life. And yet I'll be a thousand miles away from a family who needs me, a grandchild I adore, a dog who is crazed with enthusiasm every time I produce the leash. My heart is breaking already at the thought of it. I bought the plane tickets yesterday for my four trips home: for Kataleya's birthday in February, spring break in March, a church women's breakfast in April, Gregory's graduation in May. Each trip is so short! Three of the four are just a weekend. How will I come back to my dear life here only to rip myself away from it a scant 72 hours later? And then have to rip myself away from my dear life in Indiana forever come June?

But there is no point in wallowing in pre-sadness, grief for sorrows that lie some distance in the future. Tonight I'll have a merry little Christmas with Rich, Gregory, Christopher, Ashley, Kataleya, Tank, and Snickers. I'll go to church and sing the beloved carols of the season, hear the beautiful story of the birth of a savior, and light candles to herald the return of light to the world. I'll mean every word of "Joy to the world." Just for tonight, I'll rest beside the weary road and hear - really hear - the angels sing.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Gift of Critique

One favorite line I use when teaching writing classes is from the poet John Masefield: "Great art does not proceed from great criticism but from great encouragement." I do believe that encouragement is essential. My best feature as a dissertation adviser, in my view, was my ability to make my graduate students believe in themselves and just keep on writing. Get it down on paper, and we can fix it up later. We can't fix up something that exists only in someone's head - or doesn't yet exist at all.

But I might be ready to change my mind about Masefield's edict. On Wednesday night, I received great criticism on my novel-in-progress from a new writing group I've joined, as my old, dear, most beloved writing group is currently transitioning to a format based more on mutual support (that is to say, encouragement) rather than the biweekly critique sessions that structured our encounters for the past 22 years. So I joined a new group to seek out the critique I continue to need on my work. For how can a writer know if she's succeeded in connecting with her readers if she doesn't actually find some readers and ask them what they think?

On Wednesday night I had a powerful reminder of how great criticism can be. I received brilliant comments both large and small and left not only with a sense of what the book lacked but a plan for exactly how to address each problem noted.

I don't want to give away details of the plot at this point, but here are the kinds of comments I received.

There are inconsistencies between how I set up certain relationships at the beginning of the book and what I delivered as the story unfolded, a result, of course, of my learning more about the characters after living with them during the writing of the book. Now I need to go back to those first chapters and make them comport with the later ones.

The big reveal of the book is powerful and a surprise for the reader: "I didn't see that coming." Good! Nonetheless, I need to do more to prepare the reader for it, so that the reader reacts with seeing how totally RIGHT this moment is, rather than being puzzled by it. I'm going for "Yes!" rather than "Huh?"

The time frame needs more clarity: when exactly does Hunter start to change? Can there be more red herrings that Autumn and her family entertain in their wonderment about why he now acts as he does?

The particular way that I chose to heighten the significance of Autumn's key choice at the end of the novel requires the reader to swallow an enormous coincidence: can I achieve the same effect in some less contrived way? (I hope so!)

If the book opens with Autumn on her way to an appointment with her orthodontist dad, should we have additional mention of her braces throughout the book? (Yes! And what if she has food stuck in them during the crucial dance scene?)

I use the word "that" far too often. "She noticed that he had changed" could just be "She noticed he had changed." (I spent a solid hour yesterday eliminating dozens of "that"s - in one case, four in a single sentence. I always like to start with low-hanging fruit, easy cosmetic changes, as I let the big deep ones simmer).

So: thank you, thank you, thank you ,to Jen, Jenn, Vanessa, Laura, Michelle, and Tracy. May we all be grateful to those who give us the gift of truly beautiful critique.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holiday Hoopla

 In order to avoid sitting around anxiously fretting about what critique group suggestions I'll receive (tonight!) on the novel that I wrote so fast and furiously last month, with so much love and hope and fear, I'm filling my days to the brim with the activities of the season. I'm fortunate to be a member of a faith community that finds so many ways to celebrate Christmas.

So far:

 I helped the youth bake cookies to serve at fellowship time to the congregation and to share when we go caroling to shut-ins. Great was the chaos, of course, and tasty were the results.

I clapped my hands off after the youth Christmas play, written by my fellows St. Paul's UMC members Rebecca Glancy and Amy Abshire. Our church has as its mission statement To openly share creative opportunities to grow in Christ's love through worship, fellowship, service, and learning. We take the "creative" here very seriously, and usually we write our own Christmas plays. I wrote a couple myself, one based on my picture book One Small Lost Sheep, and one a new script about a chronically delinquent and deficient star who gets chosen on Christmas Eve for the most important assignment of all.

I clapped off what was left of my hands at the Christmas Cabaret put on by our little church singing group, the AnthemAires, who always delight us with stunningly beautiful settings of music, audience participation, and hilarious stage business.

I organized our Mitten Tree, which we decorate with warm outerwear to donate to the homeless shelter. I used to run our Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless drive, but now the homeless shelter prefers us to give in a different way. In the Shoebox days, I wrote a song for us to sing in worship: "Deck the halls with old shoeboxes [you can supply the fa-la-la-la-las], Fill the bottoms and the topses. Fill with gifts to give the homeless. Thus we share the joy of Christmas." My new song to usher in the Mitten Tree era goes: "Oh Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches! Oh, Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches! With hats and socks and scarves and gloves, we give to share our Savior's love. Oh, Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches!" The tree is now filling up nicely.

I hunted all over to find a doll stroller to give to the needy child who had requested it on our church love wreath. Finally, my clever daughter-in-law searched for it online and informed me it was in our Boulder Target on aisle E-5. Sure enough, there it was!

I babysit so that Christopher and Ashley can rehearse with the choir for the upcoming choir cantata, and Christopher can perform with the bell choir; he's one of those amazing bell ringers who can sub for anyone who is absent and ring two bells in each hand. (I was one of those non-amazing bell ringers who alerted the congregation to every wrong note by my constant grimaces of traumatized terror).

What else? The women's Christmas luncheon is coming up this Saturday. I'm the one in charge of organizing the caroling for the 21st. We'll all go to church on Christmas Eve at 6:30, and Christopher will return to play for the 11:00 service. I'm going to preach the sermon and preside over the service for Epiphany Sunday the beginning of January. Writing sermons has become quite the hobby for me. If you want any sermons written to order, just call!

Just as Carly Simon sang that she didn't have time for the pain, I'm trying to make sure that I don't have time for revision jitters. Just time for holiday happiness with my beloved church family.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sprint Results

To those of you who start a new life on the first of the month, as I do, happy new life! And isn't it satisfying when the first of the month falls on a Monday? Double newness!

The results are in for my ten-day sprint to finish a full draft of my novel-in-progress. Bottom line: I did it. I wrote close to 40,000 words in November, which, added to the 4000 words I already had written on the project, totaled very close to my target goal of 44,000 words for the manuscript (the same length as my most recent novel, Zero Tolerance). Final word count on the manuscript in its current form: 43,539.

Now, while close to 40,000 words in a month falls short by 10,000 words of the goal my NaNoWriMo-ing friends were aiming at (a full 50,000-word novel from start to finish in 30 days), it's definitely the most I've ever written in a month before. Now I have to decide what I think about writing so much in such a concentrated time frame.

It was definitely hard work. I needed to write for my early morning hour, and then write AGAIN, and then write AGAIN to get it all done. I gained three pounds in the course of the month by neglecting fitness (though a week of frigid temps and heavy snow didn't help, as did purchasing not one but two tubs of cookie dough from a boy at church who was selling them as a marching band fundraiser ). I was more tired. I was more stressed.

For a while I felt the quality of the writing might be suffering. I worried that the story might be getting progressively off track and that as the words kept mounting up, it might be heading more and more in the wrong direction. I didn't have the other 23 hours of my day, which I usually do, to reflect on where it was going wrong and why. I just had to keep writing word after word, page after page.

But then I decided I was mistaken about my sense of misdirection. When I got to the end of my draft, it was about 8000 words too short, which contributed to my sense of its being less fully realized than my books usually are. But at the same time I had the blinding realization of exactly what the story needed: a few crucial scenes, which after I wrote them added up to just about exactly 8000 words. It helped rather than hurt that I reached the end so quickly, so that I could survey the whole thing from the vantage point of completion, and see what it needed. Speed didn't end up compromising quality. At least that's my verdict right now. I'm expecting writing group comments on December 10, and if it did, they'll let me know.

I feel exhilarated. I did so much more than I ever thought I could do! I do feel ready to turn my attention elsewhere for a while, say, to family, fitness, and Christmas. But that's as it should be.

My conclusion: while I still plan to be an hour-a-day writer for the rest of my days, a sprint once in a while is a positive thing, a chance to stretch and grow, to feel my writer lungs engorged with oxygen, to feel the muscles in my writer legs burn, to feel those endorphins lighting up my writer brain.  I would do it again.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ten Day Sprint

One of the most useful tools I have for myself as a writer is the distinction between a sprint and a marathon. A sprint is the specialty of the hare: a fast, concentrated, full-on race toward a goal. A marathon is the specialty of the tortoise: an inch-by-inch plodding forward toward a distant horizon.

I'm definitely more of a tortoise. Anyone who calls her blog "An Hour a Day" is a tortoise. I treat writing as a marathon, where I succeed through slow, steady, sustained activity. My literary hero, Anthony Trollope, was a tortoise. He even describes himself in that way. In my favorite lines in his wonderful autobiography, he writes, "Nothing, surely, is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare. The hare has no chance. He loses more time in glorifying himself for a quick spurt than suffices for the tortoise to make half his journey."

But this month I'm a sprinter. I'm imitating my friends who are engaged in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and trying to get an entire novel written in 30 days. Well, maybe I'm both a marathoner and a sprinter. I'm trying to get a sprinter's amount of work done each day, but I'm trying to be a marathoner and do it every single day. Maybe this is the worst of both worlds: the sprinter's exhausting burst of speed repeated day after day after day. Or maybe it's the best?

Because I didn't exactly follow my own plan in the first part of November, I'm now in serious sprint mode. I need to write 2000 words a day for the next ten days. This doesn't sound so bad. I'm used to writing 1000 words a day. But my writing group friend Leslie pointed out that there is a HUGE difference between 1000 words and 2000 words. Especially if that volume of words needs to be produced every single day. In order to do it, I have to put in a good writing session in the morning and ANOTHER good writing session in the afternoon No self-glorifying rest upon laurels for me.

The beauty of the sprint, however, is that its duration is limited. I have to work hard, yes, but only for ten days. I couldn't sustain this pace for much longer. (Even as I write this, I know that the vast majority of people in the world work MUCH MUCH MUCH harder than this all the time. But we writers are a uniquely whiny bunch.) A person can work hard for ten days, right?

Even marathoners can enjoy the exhilaration of an occasional sprint. And then collapse in a little heap afterward before returning to the tortoise's less stressful pace. I'm hopping, leaping, and bounding off to race through my quota now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Last June I had a new furnace installed in my house.

Last night the new furnace stopped working.

Snow was falling, and the outside temperature was heading toward a low of 1 degrees.

I was not pleased.

The first thing I suspected was that we had forgotten to change the furnace filter. We (read: I) have forgotten to do this before. One summer, when I had been living in my little house for two or three years, my AC froze up completely on a hot day. I looked out at my deck and saw that the pipe/cable/line leading to the big round AC thing was completely coated with ice. I called a very expensive repairman. He kindly informed me that there was such a thing as a filter on the furnace/AC and that it was supposed to be changed once a month. Who knew?

So now I did know, and I started changing it, not once a month, but sometimes, or rather, making my son Christopher change it for me. Unless I forget. Then we don't change it. And bad things happen.

I sent a delegation of furnace-filter shoppers to Home Depot. They returned with the right-sized filter for the furnace and replaced the old horribly filthy one. Hooray!

Except: the furnace still wasn't working. The inside temperature of my house had reached 59 degrees, then 58, then 57.

I began making phone calls, starting with the 24/7 emergency service number of the guy who installed and warrantied the furnace. I got a recording saying that he was unable to take my call at this time but would get to me. As of this writing, he has never yet gotten back to me.

I called every emergency 24/7 furnace repair number I could find in the Boulder area. No luck: apparently 24/7 doesn't include 9 pm on a frigid Saturday night. Finally, I called Precision (the same folks who first told me about the existence of furnace filters). Friends had told me, on that occasion, that Precision is too pricey. But guess what? An actual human being answers their phone even on at 9 pm on a frigid Saturday night. She suggested some things we might try before we went to the expense of a service call. We couldn't figure out how to make them work. And so at 11:15 last night, a lovely young Precision repair guy showed up to fix our furnace.

The problem WAS the furnace filter. With the clogged filter, the furnace was running so hard and long on these last Arctic days that it overheated and shut itself down. So it was all my fault, as is so often the case with my life woes.

The heat came back on: blissful, blessed heat. How good to feel warm air blowing at last!

Friends: change your furnace filters, if not once a month, at least once a season. It will save you frantic late night phone calls and a pricey service visit (that was worth every single penny). Be happy that you have heat. Heat is such a good thing to have on a bitter cold night. All the other problems in your life recede for a while if you don't have it and seem inconsequential (for a few hours, at least) even after you get it back.

Hooray for heat!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NaNoWriMo Faux

As some of you know and others do not, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It's an official program, founded in 1999 and growing every year, where writers - both professional and amateur - commit to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch during the 30 days of November. Many of my friends are doing NaNoWriMo this year. They announce their daily word count on Facebook: 1571! 2383!

I've never signed up as a participant in NaNoWriMo, but I've been tempted by the writerly solidarity it fosters: all of these people all over the world writing frantically to meet this arbitrary-but-crucial deadline of 50,000 words by November 30. The genius of the program is that deadlines do matter; they so often make the difference between achieving our dreams versus never even taking the first step toward reaching them. Support and encouragement are crucial, too.

This year I actually have a novel I need to write this month, so this would have been a near-perfect opportunity to plunge into the festive NaNoWriMo waters. I balked chiefly because I had already written the first four chapters of the novel six months ago, when I submitted them to my publisher for the contract, and the NaNoWriMo commitment is to write an entire novel from start to finish in that time frame, not to continue and extend a work in progress. So I thought I could sort of do NaNoWriMo Faux - my own knockoff NaNoWriMo, where I channel the energy and enthusiasm of my fellow writers while doing things my own way.

So far, I have to say, I do not have the word counts on my project that my friends are posting on Facebook. Fake NaNoWriMo is not working as well for me as Real NaNoWriMo is working for them (or at least for those who are heralding their daily word counts on social media). Here are some possible reasons why.

1. I have a lifelong habit of writing only around a page a day. Given that my handwriting is so tiny, this may add up to 1000 words, but probably more like 750.  So this would be a huge leap for me. Then again, that is the whole point of NaNoWriMo: to take a leap you've never taken before. Many of its participants have a lifelong habit of writing no words a day at all.

2. I write by hand, so I have the additional task every day of transcribing my words onto the computer. This takes a lot of time, though also occasions some very good revisions as I type. People who write directly onto the computer can skip this laborious extra step. Although I write directly onto the computer all the time for work, email, blogging, I've always written all my books by hand and I'm not willing to deviate even for NaNoWriMo.

3. Because I have an actual book contract on my project, I have the (very damaging!) thought as I write that it really ought to be good. That kind of thought works against NaNoWriMo's goal which is: Just get it done! Worry about how good it is later! So the nagging critical voice inside my head, which NaNoWriMo is supposed to silence, slows me down.

4. Finally, and most important, I didn't actually sign up for NaNoWriMo. Fake is never as good as real. I've become obsessed with walking because of my new little Fitbit pedometer which logs my daily steps and keeps a tally of them online. I forgot to take my Fitbit to Sheridan for my recent Wyoming trip; without it, I lost all interest in walking. What was the point if my Fitbit wasn't recording each step? Pitiful, but true. I know NaNoWriMo would have had the same motivating effect on me for writing as my Fitbit does for walking.

But the point of this post is not to convince myself why I can't do what others - many others who have full-time jobs and demanding family responsibilities - are doing. The point is to remind myself that if they are doing it, I can, too. If the real NaNoWriMo-ers are writing up a storm, this fake NaNoWriMo-er can, too.

Off to write!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wind City Books

I had the happiest possible stay in Sheridan, Wyoming, talking to terrific kids at three different schools, writing in the Java Moon Cafe, writing in the Cowboy Cafe, writing in the public library, walking along Goose Creek, and making new friends who are dear to me after just a few days, or even hours, together.

My travel plans had to change, so I ended up renting a car to drive home from Sheridan rather than returning by private plane. I started driving yesterday after my final assembly of the day, with a plan to spend the night in Casper and then drive the rest of the way home the next day. I am usually the world's pokiest, most timid driver, but it was so easy to sail along the deserted highway at well over the 80 mph posted speed limit. I felt like Mr. Toad, heading out on the open road in my gleaming new motor car.

When I arrived at Casper at dusk, I wasn't sure where to stay, where to eat, what to do. But as I turned off I-25 onto Central Street, what should I spy but a most inviting "clean, well lighted place": the Wind City Bookstore. It was open until 6. A parking space with no meter was right there in front of it. And so I went in.

Ten minutes later the co-owner, Vicki Burger, had called ahead to Glen Rock to see if there was a room for me in her favorite hotel (there wasn't, and she sounded as disappointed as I was); she had also given me a couple of restaurant recommendations. When I shyly pointed out to her that, although the store most commendably had not one but two copies of my friend Jeannie Mobley's fabulous book Katerina's Wish, they had none of mine, she ordered Kelsey Green, Reading Queen on the spot.

I asked her for a book recommendation, since how could I not buy something from the world's most helpful bookstore lady? "What kind of book do you like?" she said. "I like books about middle-aged women following their dreams,"I replied. She led me to a memoir, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons by Mary Beth Baptiste. It's sitting beside me on my desk right now.

So if you are ever adrift in an unfamiliar city, hope they have an independent bookstore, and set out to find it. Right away you'll be home.

Oh, and buy a book while you're there, too.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

More Fun for the Same Effort

One of my projects for Act III of my life is to have a more efficient approach to fun. This sounds grim and actuarial, but it isn't. What I mean is that I want to see if I can have more fun in my life for the same amount of effort expended.

I first formulated this approach for myself when I spent last summer teaching at Hollins. One of my most beloved students, Amy, and I realized that for the same effort of meeting to discuss her chapter-book-in-progress we could meet while licking black-raspberry chocolate chip ice cream cones or while sitting in rocking chairs on the verandah. For the same effort of writing a chapter of my own book, I could write it in the Cups Cafe in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke, with a grilled cheese sandwich afterward at Pops.

Okay, it takes a little more effort to transport myself to the ice cream shop or the cafe, but for a tiny bit more effort I can transform an ordinary day into an unforgettable one.

I'm writing this from my motel in Sheridan, Wyoming, where I'll be doing two days of author visits on Monday and Tuesday. When librarian Jennifer wrote to invite me, she told me that I had three options for getting from Boulder to Sheridan (on the northern edge of Wyoming, just a few miles from the Montana border): I could drive (seven hours each way); I could fly to Billings, Montana, and rent a car to drive to Sheridan; or her father-in-law, who is a pilot, could fly down and get me in his little plane.

Hmm. Get more fun in my life for the same amount of effort expended....

As the weather was predicted to be a bit iffy for Sunday, Jennifer and I agreed that Pilot Billy would fly down to get me on Saturday, and I'd have an extra day in Sheridan to write (have I mentioned that extra days to write are my favorite thing in the world?). So mid-morning yesterday, Jennifer, Billy, and Jennifer's fabulously sweet, bright, and dear eight-year-old daughter, Paige, flew down to collect me at the little Rocky Mountain Airport around 10 miles from my house.

I admit I was a tad nervous about the flight, nervous enough that I did say a special goodbye to my family, assuring them that I've already lived a full and happy life, so they didn't have to mourn me too much if anything happened. But of course, nothing did. We flew on air as smooth as silk, in serene silence (courtesy of our headsets), looking down upon the Wyoming wilderness spread out beneath us.

Now I'm at my motel - not a motel chain, but the Mill Inn, cheaper and funkier than the higher-end alternatives. I already used my clock-change hour to write a chapter on my novel-in-progress. Shortly I'll write another chapter and then head out to wander around the charming town of Sheridan.

So many of my days, sweet as they are, blend into one another, no day much different from the next. They are days to savor, but not days to remember. Yesterday, for the same effort as an unmemorable day, I had a day to remember always.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why I Do Author Visits at Schools

In the mail this week came a fat envelope full of letters from second graders at Sampson Elementary, which I visited during my week of school visits in Houston. I've read them over and over again. Here are some of my favorite lines, with the original spelling reproduced as best I can.

Adam, liking my titles Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and Izzy Barr, Running Star, suggested I write Jackson Baxter, Writing Master. Thomas, hearing that I was stuck on a rhyming title for my work-in-progress about know-it-all Simon Ellis, suggested Simon Ellis, King of Jealous. Great titles, you two!

The kids always like best the ape dance I perform at the end of my assemblies (don't ask!). One of them wrote, "I was laughing so hard I couldn't see or breathe." Another wrote, "I almost did my scream laugh."

Blake told me, "You are one of the best athers I know. I have not read one of your book's but I just know they are reily good. I hope a lot more of your books get publisht. Try to get 20 book's or more publisht in a row that would be awsom." Blake, I couldn't agree more! I'll pass this on to my editor.

Jillian asked, "How many scools have you been to? I think you have bean to a lot! I mean, watt athor rites great books and do's not go to a lot of scools?"

Maria: "I think you are vary prity and nice." Aw, shucks, Maria!

Ava: "War do you git your story idews? I git min from my dog."

Sophie: "What year were you born in. You look like your thert five." I'll take it!

A different Sophie already has a main character for her new story: "Billy the Bad. He is vary bad."

Emily, a "shy arther" herself, sympathized with my report of all the criticism I get on my drafts from my writing group: "I feel like you in your book club my older sister reads my books and she herst my feelings a lot of times."

A third Sophie told me her reading goals: "I want to read more chapter books to impress my teacher Mrs. Hopper."

And finally, Madison told me: "When I get home I'm  going to write a book." Yes, yes, yes!

And this is why I love to do author visits at schools.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Yay for Cats and Dogs

I know the secret of happiness. Well, at least the secret of happiness for me:

1) Get up early and write on the couch with my mug of Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate beside me.
2) Go for a long walk in the beautiful mountains by my house.

Every day that I do this is a good day.

Every day that I do not do this is not a good day.

It is completely within my power to do both of these things, barring the occasional broken foot or other looming emergency.

So why do I ever not do them? Why do I look at the clock at 5:00 or 5:30, and say, oh, I can write later? Then tell myself, when I finally do roll out of bed at the ridiculously late hour of 6:30 or 7, I can take my walk later, too? The whole day drifts by in an unproductive stupor, filled with who-knows-what, and then at the end of it, no page has been written, no walk has been taken. Oh, the sad shame of it!

Luckily, such days are rare for two reasons:

1) Snickers the cat

2) Tank the dog

It's Snickers who meows to be fed breakfast at 5:30 a.m. It's Tank who writhes with joy at the sight of the leash in my hand at 7:00. Once I force myself out of bed to feed Snickers, I might as well fix myself some hot chocolate and settle down to write. After an hour of writing, I don't feel like leaving my cozy couch to walk, but I can hear Tank waiting hopefully at the bottom of the stairs.

So I write, and I walk, and life is good.

Yay for cats and dogs!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Queen for a Week

I'm writing this in the Houston airport, after an exhausting, exhilarating week of author visits to ten schools in the book-crazed Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. I'm astonished yet again by the wonderfulness of librarians who can generate so much excitement in second and third graders about books and the lucky people who write them.

I feel like a queen right now - a very tired and happy queen.

This is what it's like to arrive at Bang Elementary:

This is what it's like to enter the library at Kirk Elementary (I think it was Kirk - after such a full week, the magic all starts to blur together).

In case I didn't already feel like visiting royalty, I was crowned Reading Queen (no doubt inspired by my Kelsey Green, Reading Queen) at Sampson Elementary:

And, as if my head weren't puffed up enough already, here is Ashlyn, at Millsap Elementary, in the shirt she designed and wore for the occasion:

Now I still have to WRITE the books. I did write one page a day each morning in my lovely Hampton Inn, forcing myself out of the world's most comfortable bed to do so. It was easy, with this as my reward. Thank you, Cy-Fair librarians, for a week I'll remember always.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wealth from Frugality

I'm in Houston for a week of school visits in the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District: ten schools in five days, focusing mainly on connecting with the second and third graders who are just right as readers for my Franklin School Friends series (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star).

I was invited to come many months ago and told to make my own travel arrangements, to be reimbursed by the school district. When I searched for flights online, they were all sickeningly expensive, more than $500 round trip, with one exception: cut-rate Spirit Airlines, which charges passengers for EVERYTHING (carrying on a bag, getting a seat assignment, getting a cup of water on the plane) and whose Denver-Houston flight left at an ungodly early hour (6:15 a.m., which meant getting a 3:18 bus to the airport, which meant getting up at 2:45, which doesn't even count as early morning, but as middle-of-the-night).

I decided to buy the Spirit Airlines ticket. Even though I wasn't paying for it, somebody was, and even with all those extra fees, I still was able to fly round trip for $171.48. How could I in good conscience spend $350 more just to get a tray table on the plane, seat-back pouch to stow my reading material, and two or three extra hours of sleep?

So I did the frugal thing.

And here was my reward.

Because I arrived so very early, my host librarian, Debbie Hall, and her mega-knowledgeable first-grade-teacher colleague, Carmela, met me at the airport and whisked me off to the Montrose neighborhood to Katz's kosher deli for breakfast ("Katz's Never Kloses"),  with its old-timey tiled floors and tin ceilings. I had blueberry blintzes.

Next stop: Houston's fountain-filled museum district, near Rice University. There we spent about two hours at the stunning Museum of Natural Science, dividing our time between a breathtaking exhibit of Faberge eggs and other exquisitely detailed jeweled items (I decided I wanted the ink well, to help me write my books) and the truly amazing Morian Hall of Paleontology, which offered its own exquisitely detailed gems such as meticulously excavated tiny fossils and jewel-like petrified wood, as well as the usual parade of looming dinosaurs here staged in dramatic predator-prey interactions.

We had meant to go next to Houston's Greek festival, but by that point we were tired and decided on a late lunch at a bustling Greek eatery instead, Niko Niko's, with groaning platters of Greek specialties finished off with honey-drenched baklava.

I checked in to my Hampton Inn by 3, promptly crawled into the world's most comfortable bed, and indulged in a four-hour nap. Why not? This early frugal bird had already caught hours of dazzling pleasures by the time the more expensive flights would have touched down. So I concluded my frugal day with the second most wonderful nap of my life (Cheryl:  you know what the first-most wonderful one was). Yay for frugality!


Thursday, October 2, 2014


After a month of what other people have been calling my "retirement" and I have been calling my transition to life as a full-time writer, I just made the decision to un-retire. I've accepted an offer to return to my visiting professorship at DePauw University for the spring semester.

When I set foot in Greencastle last week, I fell back in love, so hard, so fast. I kept thinking of the Dolly Parton song I used to listen to back when I had a complicated love life, many decades ago: "Here you come again, looking better than a body has a right to. And shaking me up so, that all I really know, is here you come again - and here I go...." The little town of Greencastle (pop. 10,000), the idyllic campus of DePauw (even under construction), the walk through the Nature Park to the pristine and peaceful Prindle Institute, hugs from colleagues, late night talks with my former housemate Julia. . . . it all looked better than any place on earth has a right to. It shook me up so, the intensity of the longing to be there again.

It all happened so fast. I went so quickly from "Gee, it's great to be back here," to "Wow, I really would like to teach here again some time," to "Do you think you might ever have a use for me in the future?" to "Next spring? Let me think for a second or two. . . why, YES!"

I'll be teaching children's literature in the English department, Rousseau in the philosophy department, and throwing myself once again into all Prindle Institute for Ethics activities. I'll reside with Julia and her darling kindergartner, Alex. And I'll be living in the same state as my sister for the first time since our childhood.

I already have pangs at the thought of leaving my sweet Boulder life yet again - my family, my friends, my church, my world. But I'll come back for Kataleya's first birthday in February, for spring break in March, for Gregory's graduation in May.

And I have to admit that so far I haven't liked being a full-time writer as much as I thought I would. A lifelong pattern of writing for only an hour a day (a pattern which allowed me to write and publish 50 books) is hard to break. I thought I might be able to make myself write at least two hours a day, but I just didn't seem to be able to. I wasn't completing any more pages than when I worked full time. And while I did fill the rest of my days with considerable fun, I had just as much fun before. It turns out that I'm happier when I'm busy.

Maybe a month wasn't a fair try of my new life. That's hardly time to get the opening scenes of Act III to be playing out as they should. In any case, I've said yes to DePauw, and I feel excited. I'll still need to figure out the full-time writing life someday, but I'll tackle that later.

For now, my new mantra for myself is: "Do not go gentle into that good pasture." With this decision to return to teaching for one last (?) semester, I'm feeling my oats.

I'm feeling downright frisky.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Song to Indiana

Five days in to my week in Indiana, I've fallen back in love, as hopelessly as I did the first time.

But who couldn't love a place that offered these assorted joys?

1. Residence with my beloved former housemate Julia and her five-year-old son Alex, who now speaks only in fluent German at home. It was fun for me to try to pick out a word or phrase from tmy two years of college German many decades ago. When I came back to Julia's house one afternoon, letting myself in with the key Julia had loaned me, he came running to the door to see who it was and then announced cheerfully, "Nur Claudia." I remembered, "nur" is "only." So that was one word of German salvaged from all that intensive study. I loved that Alex considers me part of his world again, not a visitor, but a familiar fixture in his home and family.

2. Early morning walks along the Nature Park trails to the Prindle Institute, situated in beautiful woods by an abandoned quarry that is now a refuge for animals and humans alike.

3. Breakfast in the Prindle kitchen with Assistant Director Linda Clute, perched on the counters as we did in days of yore. Linda warned this year's two graduate fellows not to be surprised to see us sitting there. Apparently, counter-perching had fallen out of fashion. But I was pleased that by the end of the week, the graduate fellows were perching there, too. One day Linda brought a moist, rich cucumber cake (like zucchini cake but even better) in my honor; another day one of the fellows brought apple streusel muffins.

4. A lunchtime talk by brilliant sociology professor Mona Bhan on her research on women, sexuality, and national identity in the India/Pakistan border region.

5. A talk by ME on female friendships in children's literature, given as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Women's Center. To my great surprise, although I had expected the audience to be only my old friends, actual students arrived to hear what I had to say.

6. Lunch at Dairy Castle, finished off by black raspberry ice cream for me and persimmon ice cream for my friend Keith.

7. Joining with the crowd of parents picking up kindergartners from Ridpath Elementary. And then seeing those same children, a day later, pulling little red wagons full of donated canned goods to the Greencastle homeless shelter, the brainchild of one kind, determined first grader, Lilly Welch. Oh, and there was a police escort to accompany the children's bighearted parade, exactly what a police force is for.

8. A drive down to Bloomington on a perfect late September afternoon with Linda for a reunion with our former graduate fellow Nicki, who perched with us on the Prindle kitchen counters for two years and is now a second year law student at Indiana University.

9. A meeting with the Janeites book group to discuss Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon; as always, champagne and scrumptious dessert (lemon bars) were served.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Off to Indiana

I leave today for a week in my beloved Indiana. I'll spend four nights in Greencastle, staying with my former housemate Julia and her darling little boy Alex (who used to be three and in preschool but is now FIVE and a big, savvy kindergartner!). Then I'll spend three nights in Greenwood with my sister and her husband, who moved to Indiana last fall for Cheryl's job in the tax department at Eli Lilly.

I'm going to sink back in to the life I loved so much during my two years at DePauw. I'll write by the fireplace at the beautiful Prindle Institute for Ethics where I had my office.

Or else I'll write in the Bartlett Reflection Center overlooking the abandoned quarry that is now a nature park.

I'll have breakfast with the Prindle's Assistant Director, Linda, perched on the counters in the Prindle kitchen. I'll take breaks to walk the rim trail around the quarry. I'll attend a luncheon talk by Mona Bhan of Sociology, I'll give a talk myself during the week-long tenth anniversary celebration of the Women's Center, I'll meet with the the Prindle's new director to see  if there is anything useful I might do for the Prindle in the future. I'll sit my favorite chair in the philosophy department lounge in Asbury Hall. I'll see as many friends as humanly possible, including driving down to Bloomington for dinner with our former graduate fellow who is now a law student at Indiana University.

Then: sister fun with Cheryl! Actually, the main sister fun I'm longing for is to help Cheryl finish organizing her enormous library in the new house on her 25 floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of books and bears. That is the sort of project I adore. I want to see her new house, explore her new town, and check out the dairy she's told me about where you can see the friendly cows getting ready to produce the milk to made the home-made ice cream.

So that is my plan. I like my plan. And then I'll return home to figure out how to keep that Indiana joy here in my life every day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Ten Times Better than Anything"

Last weekend I was up in Silverthorne for my annual writing group retreat. Our group has been meeting together for 22 years. I joined when I moved to Colorado in 1992, when Gregory was just turning 1; next month he will be 23.

We go away on a retreat together every summer. This year we chose a weekend in early fall, as for the first time ever I had the luxury of not having to teach during the autumn semester. So this year, for the first time ever, we were there as the aspen were beginning to turn.

The house we rented had some flaws. It wasn't the one we had signed up to get; there was some confusion over a last-minute switcheroo. The couches weren't comfy, and there were no coffee tables on which we writers could rest our piles of manuscripts, books to share, and abundant snacks and glasses of wine. But resourceful as we are, we re-purposed a couple of our coolers as coffee tables, topping them with extra pillowcases from the linen closet for a lovely effect. And the lack of coffee tables was more than made up for by an extra-relaxing hot hub, stunning views of Lake Dillon, and proximity to dozens of hiking trails. Leslie, pictured here with me, declared our first glimpse of the trails to be "ten times better than anything," and that became our unofficial slogan for the retreat. (Official slogan, chosen ahead of time during our retreat planning: "Break Through to Bliss.")

The heart of the retreat is having unstructured time to write and then sharing what we've written. I try to bring something extra significant each year: the first chapter of a new book or the concluding chapter of a book long in the making. This year, despite my supposedly having all this new free time to write, I had been scrambling before I left to finish up revisions on the second book in the Nora Notebooks series and to deal with the proofs and index for my edited collection, Ethics and Children's Literature. But during the retreat I did get something written on Friday to share on Saturday: chapter 2 of the third and final book in the Nora series. It was sweet to remember that I had shared chapter one of book one at the retreat last year.

We also eat, heaps and heaps and heaps of lovingly prepared food. This is becoming more of a challenge as nowadays everyone has so many special diets. There is always someone who doesn't eat gluten, or soy, or shellfish, or nightshade vegetables, or all of the above. It's hard to break bread together when everyone (except me, it seems!) is swearing off carbs. But once we sit down at the table together, none of this matters. We laugh, we cry, we talk and talk and talk and talk. We remember the years we've shared, toast recent joys, commiserate with ongoing concerns, dream of the future.

Being in a writing group like this one is ten times better than anything.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"So How Are You Liking Retirement?"

This is what everyone keeps asking me. "So how is it, being retired?"

My first impulse is to shriek, "I'm not retired! I didn't retire! I quit my day job to follow my dream of being a full-time children's book writer!"

But I can see how other people would think I'm retired. After all, I took an early retirement package from the university; as a benefit of retirement, the university still pays for my health insurance until I'm eligible for Medicare; and they gave me a lovely retirement sendoff and gift.

Moreover, I have to admit that since I've been "retired" or "transitioned" or "become a full-time writer," I really haven't gotten appreciably more writing done than I did when I was on my hour-a-day system that structured my entire thirty-year, fifty-book writing career and that gave this blog its name. I'm still having a lot of trouble figuring out what to do with the rest of my time, once I write my early morning hour and take my early morning walk. And what I have been doing looks a lot like what retired people do: have lunch with friends, go see the Chihuly glass exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens for a second time, read a lot more books (currently I'm adoring Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame), and log thousands of additional steps on my new Fitbit (over 20,000 a day sometimes).

But I want my new post-professorial life to be more than that. What I want it to be, of course, is amazing, stuffed full every day with creative joy, with artistic bliss, and in a pinch, creative suffering and artistic angst will do. I want to feel that I left my job to fill my life more fully with something else, not just do the same kinds of things I did before, but minus my salary (though also minus certain inescapable irritations that come from any workplace and most recently came from my workplace). I want to live my new life in bigger, brighter colors. Not have it dinge to drabness.

So how am I liking "retirement"? The answer is that I'm still trying to figure out how to make "it" -- whatever "it" is -- work for me. I have two trips coming up, one to Indiana to visit my sister and dear DePauw friends and one a week of school visits in Texas. Both of these are things I would have had a hard time doing during the term if I were teaching. I've been trying very hard, and recently with some success, to write for TWO hours a day, which means doubling my lifelong rate, a not insignificant increase in both input and output.

Basically, now, I would say that Act III of my life is a work in progress. I'm not ready to open this show on Broadway yet. I'm trying in out in New Haven first. No, I'm trying it out in community theater, with an amateur cast consisting chiefly of me.

But that's okay. It's a lovely challenge, to have the time and space to figure out how one wants to live one's life. It's a beautiful gift that I've given myself, to have this conundrum before me.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stick with What Works

I am dating the official start of my new life as a full-time children's book writer as this past Monday. That was the day that classes began for the fall semester at CU, and I was not there handing out my syllabus and greeting my students. I celebrated this huge life change by heading out early with my friend Rowan and my little dog, Tank, for a hike on the Shanahan Ridge trail, followed by seriously facing the revisions I have to do on the second book in the Nora Notebooks trilogy. Hooray!

But exhilaration lasted only a short while, alas. I got two good hours of work done on Monday, one good hour done on Tuesday, and yesterday, a grand total of nothing, no work at all.

What did I do instead? I did amazing amounts of walking, logging steps like crazy on my new adorable Fitbit, which I bought myself as a big 6-0 birthday present, It's basically just an extra-small and extra-cute pedometer, but it also syncs with your computer, keeps track of all your walking activity, and allows you to compare results with any friends who are Fitbit fanatics, too. I started using the Fitbit mid-day on Monday and racked up over 10,000 steps by the end of the day. The next day I walked all over town on errands and racked up over 20,000. And yesterday I came close to 20,000 steps, too.

Go, me?

Well, not really. I didn't leave a well-paid, satisfying position as a philosophy professor just to be able to brag to my friends how many steps I take. Fitness is important, yes, but it's not everything to me. And in all honesty, I've been logging fewer minutes on my feet than I have on Facebook. I've felt sadder and sadder about myself as the days passed, until yesterday I found myself Googling "inertia" and "stuck" and other similarly dispiriting search terms.

But then I realized: I already know what to do to make things better. All I need to do is the same things that have worked for me my entire life.

1. Get up early. Even if I have all day to work, in theory, I now know that I won't get any work done at all if I don't face it first thing. So this morning I forced myself out of bed at 5, even though I now know the joy of luxuriating under the covers until 6. I did good work BEFORE I walked at 7.

2. Don't think of yourself as having all day. Think of yourself as having, yes, one hour. This morning, I turned over my cherished cherrywood hour glass once again and clocked one sweet productive hour as its sands slipped away.

3. Give the hour to what you love best, or at least, what most needs doing so that your spirit won't be utterly crushed under the misery and dread of having to do it. Today I didn't give my hour to my Nora revisions (what I love best), but to writing a last-hurrah tenure/promotion review, a leftover obligation of my professor days. That has been hanging over my head all summer, and now it's done, done, done, oh, joy, oh, rapture, a full four days before the September 1 deadline.

So I need to do what works. Different things might work for you, but for me, all I need to do is to get up early and spend ONE HOUR doing what's most important to me for the day.

It's a bit deflationary to realize that my new life is going to be built on the exact same principle of my old life. I was already devoting an early morning hour to what I love best over the course of the last thirty-five years of writing around the confines of my day job. If the new life isn't going to be appreciably different, why did I walk away from the money, prestige, and satisfaction that my other career brought me?

I don't know the answer to that yet. I'll have to figure that out as Act III of my life continues. For now I know to start by sticking with what has always worked for me. My early morning hours have to stay unchanged. I can reinvent myself all I want during the rest of the day. But tomorrow at 5 a.m., expect to find me lying on my couch, mug of hot chocolate by my side, writing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Curtain Rise, Act III

Today is my 60th birthday.

Today is the day the curtain rises on Act III of my life.

Act II ended when I turned in the keys to my philosophy department office at the University of Colorado on the final day of May and ended my 22-year tenure as a professor there. This summer has been one long sweet intermission leading up to this milestone birthday and to this coming Monday, when classes begin again at CU and I won't be there. And now Act III begins, the best act of all.

I started a new little Act III notebook to write my goals for Act III and little bits of wisdom to guide me along the way. Much of the wisdom came to me via my sister, Cheryl, who posts a wonderful quote every day on Facebook from some famous person in honor of his or her birthday. Of late, so many of them have been perfect nuggets of Act III wisdom.

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is give us." Tolkien

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year." Emerson

"Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming." Alice Walker

And this one I clipped from the most recent issue of the Oprah magazine:
"On the day I die, will I be glad I did the thing I'm doing now?"

The theme for Act III is the awareness of mortality and how it increases the preciousness of each moment and gives a new urgency to the question of how we spend our days. I no longer have any time to squander.

Now, it's important to be clear on what counts as "squandering." An afternoon spent reading in a hammock is not a wasted afternoon. An evening spent walking with a friend or a dog is not a wasted evening. A morning spent gazing out at the mountains is not a wasted morning. At the end of my life, I'll be glad I did all those things. My four pillars have always been the same, the four things that make every day a joyous one for me: writing, reading, walking, friends. Those will be what structure my third act as well.

But Act III is also a last chance for even bigger adventures. If I'm going to live in a garret in Paris, or go on a walking tour of children's literature sites in England, or write the best book I've ever written, I'd better do it now.

Of course I know that Act III will also bring with it the challenges and undeniable losses that come with age. In case I had forgotten, I got a birthday email this morning from the Boulder Institute for Sports Medicine, where I had my broken foot treated this past spring, a seeming reminder that they're standing ready for my upcoming wrenched shoulders and fractured hips. Thanks for the nudge, Boulder Institute for Sports Medicine, to savor every single day that I can walk unaided, to savor every night that I can sleep without pain. And without challenges and losses, what would be the plot of Act III? Any writer knows that the ending is only sweeter for some struggles along the way.

At least that's what I'm telling myself on this beautiful morning of my 60th birthday, as I await with the excitement of a small child (and the hard-earned wisdom of a woman no longer young) for what the next thirty or forty years will bring.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Honey Pie

The fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series is going to be a spelling bee book, starring good-at-everything Simon Ellis, who offered keen reading, math, and running competition in the first three titles. Now Simon has to wrestle with the dark side of being such a gifted kid: what if in winning the spelling bee he loses his best friend?

A recurring character throughout the series is Franklin School principal Mr. Boone. He promised to shave off his big, bushy beard as a reading contest reward in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. He let himself be dunked multiple times at the school carnival in Annika Riz, Math Whiz. He sprained his ankle on Field Day demonstrating hoppy ball prowess in Izzy Barr, Running Star. So of course he's the all-enthusiastic cheerleader for the spelling bee in Simon's book. This time he's offering a pie buffet to all the champion spellers, where the crowning glory of the pie selection will be his famous honey pie. (Bee, honey, get it?)

I sent the book to Margaret Ferguson for her editorial suggestions and received plenty of brilliant comments to strengthen the book in revision. She also asked, "Should we include Mr. Boone's honey pie recipe?" Why yes, we should. The only problem was that I didn't have Mr.Boon'e honey pie recipe. It was my own authorly fabrication. And now I needed to find it.

Hooray for Facebook! I put out a call for honey pie recipes and had a lovely selection of them within an hour. Best of all, one came from author extraordinaire Lisa Graff, also a baker extraordinaire, who includes amazing, fabulous, mouth-watering cake recipes in her hugely acclaimed recent middle grade novel A Tangle of Knots. 

I tried baking Lisa's pie yesterday. Here it is in all its splendor:

The honey/sugar in the pie caramelized, giving a pleasing creme brulee effect. I didn't use her home-made crust, of course, as I am not a baker extraordinaire myself. But it was fine with a refrigerated ready-to-bake crust from King Soopers, sweet and creamy with coarsely ground sea salt sprinkled on top. Now I'm going to try one more Facebook offering, a Greek honey pie with ricotta cheese in it. Then I'll let my family vote on which recipe, tweaked a bit, will become Mr. Boone's specialty in the book.

Sometimes it's hard to live with an author, I'm sure. But sometimes it can be quite tasty.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Home from Hollins

I'm back now from my blissful six and a half weeks away, first presiding over the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association in Columbia, SC, and then teaching my chapter book writing class for six weeks at Hollins University in Roanoke. I was a tad apprehensive about my homecoming, the return to real life after so long in the enchanted world of children's books, what one friend calls my "Betsy-Tacy bubble." But it turns out that home is pretty sweet, too.

Nowadays, with daughter-in-law Ashley in residence, I return to a sparkling kitchen, well-stocked fridge, and elegantly lettered message on the dry-erase board saying WELCOME HOME, CLAUDIA! Now, with grandbaby Kataleya in residence, I return to this:

Need I say more?

I've already been back to church for a wonderful guest sermon by the chaplain of the campus Wesley Center and exhilarating music from a world-class trumpeter who plays in the summer Colorado Music Festival orchestra and uses our church as practice space. I've attended my writing group and toasted one member's just-signed screenplay contract. I've laughed and prayed with our church's summer women's book group: we're loving Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith by Michelle DeRusha. I've taken little dog Tank on daily walks; he writhes with rapture at the sight of me approaching leash in hand, or even at the sight of me with hat and sunglasses on. I've eaten cherries by the pool with my friend Rowan and celebrated her birthday at a delicious breakfast outside on the terrace at the Buff (where I also enjoyed one of their 99-cent mimosas). I sent last comments to my Hollins students, faced the copy-edited manuscript for my Ethics and Children's Literature collection, wrote a blind journal review for an article on The Hundred Dresses, and started on final revisions for the Simon spelling bee book.

I even dealt with a leaking upstairs bathroom shower drain and a ruined downstairs bathroom ceiling, with two visits from a plumber to deal with the former and two from a carpenter to deal with the latter.

It's a little more than two weeks now to my 60th birthday, when the curtain will go up on Act III. I've been calling this summer "intermission," but now I'm starting to hear the distant strains of the pit orchestra tuning up for the overture. And I like what I'm hearing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ah, Sweet Messiness of Life

I now have just three Hollins days left before I fly home to real life on Friday.

How happy these six weeks have been. The daily early morning walks, two or three times around the 1.75 mile perimeter of this beautiful, pastoral campus with fellow writers Candice and Elizabeth and whoever else cares to join us. Stimulating classes with my seven creative writing graduate students, each one doing her best to meet my challenge of drafting an entire 15,000-word chapter book in a month: two have turned theirs in to me already. Weekly one-on-one meetings with most of them, sometimes in my office, sometimes curled up on the couch in the third floor lounge in Swanannoa, sometimes over a meal, sometimes while eating ice cream. Evening talks several times a week by the greats of our profession - Candace Fleming, Han Nolan, fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes - as well as emerging new voices. Reconnecting with so many dear friends from my past.

During this six week span, I wrote the entire draft of my spelling bee book, received probing editorial comments on it, leaped into revision mode, and emailed it off to my editor this morning, with a somewhat feeble "Ta-dah!" but a "Ta-dah" nonetheless. I worked through the copy-edited manuscript of my Nora ant farm book. I sent the fifteen copy-edited chapters of my Ethics and Children's Literature collection to the contributors for their final approval. A slacker, I have not been! 

Yet, despite many, many hours spent writing, teaching, and talking to students, it's been an enormously restorative, even restful, six weeks for me. I eat my easy-peasy meals in the Hollins cafeteria or cut up a farmers' market peach topped with Greek yogurt, a handful of blueberries, and a drizzle of honey. I have only the clothes I brought with me in my carry-on luggage. I am far away from so many cares.

Come Friday, I'll have to deal with the leak that ruined the downstairs bathroom ceiling at home while I was away. I'll have to figure out if I can really live on the amount of money I can earn with my pen. There are people there who need me. I may even have to cook a meal or two!

My dear wise friend Billie pointed out to me that if I stayed at Hollins longer, it would become real life, and then it would become messy, too. Real life is messy. There's no getting around that. In real life, real people need us, and real leaks cause real damage leading to real repairs followed by real (and really expensive!) mold mitigation (as I know too well from how I spent the first half of June before departing for Hollins).

But that's okay. Real life also has a grandbaby to hold, who turned five months old while I was away, and who can now laugh and roll over from back to tummy. Real life has my summer women's book group at church, and hikes with my friend Rowan. Real life has lots more writing in it, and I do love to write. Real life is messy, yes, but there is sweetness in the glorious mess of it, too.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Bucket List

With four weeks done of the sweet six weeks of my summer stint at Hollins, and two left to go, I'm all too aware of how fast the time is passing and how many joys I have yet to experience. It's time to make a list of everything that I want to make sure happens before I fly back to Colorado on August 1.

1. I absolutely MUST spend some time writing at my new favorite coffee shop, Cups, in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke.

2. I absolutely MUST have a grilled cheese sandwich at the little place around the corner: Pops. Not one but TWO of my students have told me this.


 3. I have my heart set on getting comments on the last half of my spelling bee book from my two brilliant Hollins friends and colleagues, Lisa Rowe Fraustino and Hilary Homzie.

4. I so want to attend the playwriting-for-children workshop led by Nicole Adkins, and hear the talk "Mirrors of Antiquity in Modern Fantasy" by Bryn Mawr classics professor Benjamin Stevens, and the keynote address of our Twentieth Annual Francelia Butler Student Conference on Children's Literature by legendary fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes.

5. I want to sit writing at least one more time in a rocking chair on the verandah in the quad, and in the reading loft which you reach by ascending a tiny spiral staircase in the library, and on the cozy couch in the third floor lounge in Swannanoa Hall.

I think I'm going to be able to do all of these things! I already have plans with two students for an outing to write at Cups on Saturday morning, followed by grilled cheese at Pops. Lisa, Hillary, and I are meeting for a critique group session tonight; I suspect that a margarita may be involved as well. I've blocked out time for all those delicious talks in my planner. As for writing, I do believe I can write on the verandah today, and in the reading loft on Sunday, and in the Swannonoa lounge several times next week.

And if there is anything else that clamors for inclusion on my summer bucket list, I may just have to see if I can return here to teach in some future Hollins term, and start my list all over again.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"When You Come to a Fork, Take It"

Yogi Berra is remembered as much for his "Yogiisms" as for his distinguished career in Major League Baseball: sayings such as "It ain't over till it's over" and "You can observe a lot by watching." One of my favorites is: "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Lately I've been coming upon lots of little forks in the road of my daily life, opportunities to do activity A or activity B. Should I accept a new friend's invitation to go with her on a Saturday morning to the farmers' market in downtown Roanoke, or devote the day to writing my chapter book? Which chapter book: should I be working on my spelling bee book or on my third Nora-with-the-ant-farm book, both with looming due dates? Should I go with my friend Rachel to Williamsburg (on the other side of the state) for opening night of Julius Ceasar, where her son worked on the set in summer stock? Or use the time to catch up on some work before two girlfriends from our University of Maryland days descend on us for a delicious reunion?

Inspired by Yogi Berra, rather than trying to decide which tine of the fork I should take, these days I'm trying to find a way to take the whole fork. Which one should I do? Both!

The farmers' market/writing choice was really a no-brainer. Get real, Miss Claudia! You already know that an hour a day of writing is plenty! Write for your hour, write HARD for your hour, and then head off to buy South Carolina peaches (so good!) and have a Bloody Mary with lunch in the courtyard of a Creole restaurant. With the book writing: the spelling bee book is shorter and due sooner, and I was stuck on the other one, anyway. So I'll do both, but first this one, then that one. For this weekend's fun, I'm so glad I decided to do all of it. I had a 30-hour jaunt to Williamsburg where I saw beautiful scenery in Shenandoah National Park, walked in the rain down Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg with my author friend Brenda who lives in the area, had dinner with Brenda and my wife-and-husband librarian friends Noreen and Alan, saw the play (focusing as much on the ingenious set as on the famous speeches), and am now back at Rachel's house awaiting the arrival of our friends Robin and Lori. As for the work I meant to do, it will get done. Work always does. In fact, I might take a few whacks at it right now.

When in doubt, do both. While no one wants a life that is uncomfortably crammed, I want to err on the side of saying yes to it all, stuffing each day full of joy, love, and beauty. Just about all of my regrets from the first sixty years have been not for things I did, but for things I didn't do. In Act III of my life, I want to grab the whole fork and eat my way through the full buffet of the glorious possibilities laid out before me in this, my one and only life.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Calling on My Peeps

I now have a first full draft of the fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series. (Previous titles: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star.) This is a spelling bee book, starring Simon Ellis, who has been Kelsey's rival in the reading contest, Annika's rival in the Sudoku contest, and the rival of Cody (soon to star in book number five) in a race. The challenge for me in this current book is to make good-at-everything-Simon a sympathetic character with whom readers can identify, to find the vulnerabilities in the kid seemingly without any.

With a full draft done, it's time to call on my peeps to give me wise counsel that will help me write the next draft.

My son Gregory had already helped me enormously in writing the first chapter, where Simon is trying to find out what the longest word in the whole world is. When I was growing up, playground wisdom was that it was antidisestablishmentarianism. I knew that different times might generate different answers, so I asked Gregory what the longest word was taken to be when he was growing up. Without missing a beat, he told me, the syllables tripping with ease off his tongue:

pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. !!!

That went into the book.

Now I needed his help even more. I had decided that I simply could not keep writing realistic fiction about contemporary kids in school settings without having some kid sometime play a video game. So I wrote two video game scenes in Simon's book: one where his best friend, Jackson, is upset that Simon beats him; one where Jackson is equally upset that Simon lets him win.

The trouble is: I have never played a single video game in my entire life.

Luckily for me, Gregory has. 

I sent him my first try at the scenes, and he sent me back pages of kindly worded but sweeping critique:"In the beginning of the game Xalik and Satu are fighting each other, but then right afterwards they go to trying to find a treasure chest.  It is unlikely that a game would have the players switch objectives like this."

I rewrote the scenes and sent them back to him. His verdict: much better, but. . . . He sent me links to websites where I could learn more about game design, the difference between 2D and 3D games, game settings, game moves. My heart sank. Finally I threw myself on his mercy: "Gregory, could you maybe write just a couple of little details I could put in that would be accurate and real and engaging?" He did so within the hour. I feel a bit guilty about letting him ghost-write these lines for me, but then I remembered that Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my most beloved Betsy-Tacy books, had her husband, Delos, write the football scenes for her in the high school stories.

Next I emailed my brilliant former grad student Sara Goering to vet my Scrabble scene; she is a Scrabble-playing fiend. I emailed my philosophy department colleague Graham Oddie, parent of a now-grown-up violinist, to ask what scales Simon's teacher would ask him to play at his lesson:
Jessica, sitting with her dad in Reutlingen, Germany, sent me this: "Now let me hear a d major scale, two octaves, and the major and minor arpeggios."

I've sent the entire book off to my Boulder writing group friend Leslie O'Kane for what I know will be enormously insightful comments on its overall shape and pacing. My Hollins students have asked to read it, so I've emailed it off to them, too. Two Hollins faculty colleagues, Lisa Rowe Fraustino and Hillary Homzie, are working through it in a little manuscript exchange conducted over margaritas with fabulous Palestinian or Thai food made by Lisa's husband, AKA "The Cutie."

Yay for the village that it takes to write a book.