Monday, April 30, 2018

Saying Yes to Fun

When I took part in the gala Festival of Stories back in March, one of the additional joys of the festival was the chance to be interviewed by Kristen Olsen for her radio program "Tunes and Tales" on station 88.9 KRFC. Kristen is a delightful conversationalist, so it was easy to forget I was being taped for a future radio broadcast and just enjoy chatting. In fact, it was easy to forget about the future radio broadcast altogether.

Then two days ago I got an email from Kristen saying that my segment was going to air on Sunday evening at 6:30, paired with a presentation by a group of elementary students who were coming to the studio to give a ten-minute book talk on my title Cody Harmon, King of Pets.
She added: "I know this is very late in the game, but would you be interested in showing up at the station as a surprise after they talk about your book on air? Maybe we could all get ice cream?"

It took me about 30 seconds to decide to say yes. I mean, going to a radio station? Ooh! As a surprise for children who had actually read and loved my book? Followed by ice cream?! This in a year where my chief goal for myself is creative joy and all the fun that attends being part of the world of children's book writing? When I agreed, I hadn't thought to ask where the radio station was. I just assumed it was in Denver, the site of the Festival of Stories (30 miles from Boulder). Instead it turned out to be in Fort Collins (65 miles from Boulder). Oh, well. Kids! At a radio station! Followed by ice cream! How could I not say yes?

I'm so glad I did.

I arrived in Fort Collins ridiculously early, but found the Alley Cat Cafe ("Always open") right near the radio station, where I sipped delicious ginger tea and outlined the next seven or eight chapters of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. (I get serious about outlining a book once I have the first few chapters drafted, in this case, the first three). 

Then: time to go to the studio and meet my young readers: four second graders.They were already in the recording room with head phones on (so glamorous!). They hadn't known I was coming and all gave gratifying OMG reactions of happy surprise. We chatted among ourselves, with Kristen's encouragement, as the taped interview played, and then the children gave their report on the book, including what they had liked best.

Simon liked how the principal had an M&M dispenser in his office and how one of the characters shared his name "Simon."

Joie liked when the girls came over to Cody's house and planned costumes for the pet show. She especially liked how the pig was dressed up with a Charlotte's Web theme as she loves that book.

Forrest liked how, when the principal read out the winner for the pet show, he pretended not to be able to read the handwriting on the card that said "Mr. Piggins."

Zoe liked "the rough parts": when Cody's friend Tobit throws a rock at Stubby the Squirrel and upsets Cody, and when Cody and Tobit have a fight and have to go the principal's office.

I told the kids I loved writing all those parts of the book, too.

Here we are in the studio, the kids in their headphones (or other head adornments). 
Afterward, we had popsicles - yum! Mine was raspberry. 

If I'm ever asked again if I want to drive 65 miles to a radio station to hang out with smart, funny, fabulous second graders, I'm not even going to take 30 seconds before I say: YES!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Creative Joy in the Coffee Shop

Years ago, when my boys were young enough that I was the one who had to drive them to their music lessons (piano for Christopher, saxophone for Gregory), both music teachers lived east of Boulder in the town of Lafayette, fifteen minutes away. So I cleverly arranged for both lessons to be at the same time and found a comfy, cozy coffee shop where I could while away a pleasant hour every Wednesday afternoon. It was there at Cannon Mine Coffee that I first started making long lists in my trusty little notebook of everything I wanted my life to be.

Back then, as I remember, there was just one couch and a bunch of tables. It was very important to me to get the couch. One day, en route to a lesson, I told Gregory, "If I get the couch, the rest of my life will be good. If I don't get the couch, the rest of my life will be bad." He said, "Mom, I think you're putting too much significance on the couch." And, yes, I did get the couch that day and the rest of my life did turn out exactly according to my prediction.

Today I had a delightful outing in the early afternoon, talking to a class of third graders at Mackintosh Academy as part of my research on comic books for my work-in-progress. I interviewed the kids for a most productive half hour of their library time, asking them about their favorite comic books and graphic novels, and even better, asking them what comic books they were writing themselves. (I warned them first that some of these ideas might find their way into my book, but that didn't dissuade them from sharing.)

When I had finished the interview, I felt like going somewhere special to do some writing on Chapter Two of the book. After all, my new year's goal is to have 10 hours a month of creative joy, and it's extra joyous to write somewhere out of the ordinary. Then I remembered  . . wait. . . I'm already halfway to Cannon Mine. It must be a decade since I've been there. Oh, I hope the couch is still there! And I hope I get the couch!

It was, and I did.

I had started Chapter 1 at Union Station, and I finished Chapter 1 on my own cozy little couch at home. I started Chapter 2 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and I finished it today on the couch at Cannon Mine.

Now: where shall I write Chapter 3?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Writing the First Line of My New Book

Writing the first sentence of a new book is scary.

Even though you know you can change it.

Even though you more than likely will change it.

It just feels so . . . momentous, so significant, so "fraught with fraughtness" as my friend Brenda says.

I've developed a system for making this moment more jolly and joy-filled (extra appropriate for this year I'm devoting to the pursuit of creative joy). I write that first line someplace special, not all alone in my ordinary house, but Somewhere Else, with its own imagination-stirring energy.

Yesterday was the day I planned to start writing the second book in my After School Super Stars chapter book series: book one was set in an after-school cooking camp; book two is set in an after-school comic-book/graphic-novel camp. I've been consumed with intensive comic book research (see previous post). But I love to start writing as soon as possible, as so much happens - really, everything happens - when the characters start to come alive and interact with one another on the page.

I had already planned to take the bus to Denver in the afternoon for the Big Book Bash organized by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to celebrate new books out this spring by local members. The Big Book Bash was taking place at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, right by Union Station.

A plan began to form. What if I went in a bit earlier and wrote my first line of the new book sitting in the grand, glorious Great Hall of Union Station, with its many couches, chairs, tables, and other inviting writing spaces, not to mention its abundance of eateries to offer writerly sustenance?


The bus from Boulder to Denver takes just over half an hour; I used the time to read a graphic novel from my research stack (Smile, by Raina Telgememeier, which I loved). At Union Station I bought a luscious muffin and chose the unoccupied corner of a long, comfy couch.

Now was the fateful moment. I took the cap off my trusty Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen and wrote what might - or might not - be the first line of Vera Everett, Comic Book Star. I won't share that line here, as it's too new and tender for sharing right now. But words have been written! On the page! By me! To start a new book!

Once the first page was finished (as well as every crumb of the muffin), for extra credit I hopped aboard the free Sixteenth Street shuttle and went further downtown to the Civic Center, where a convention of indie-comic-book-creators was taking place: DINK (Denver Independent Comics & Art Expo). More research for Vera's story! The day's outing finished up with cake to celebrate new books by several dear author friends at the Big Book Bash. This is what I would call a perfect author day.

So if it's scary writing the first page of a new book, go write it Somewhere Else (and eat something Extra Nice while writing it). Take it from me!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Next Up: Comic Books!

My editor finally approved my fifth round of revisions on NIXIE NESS, COOKING STAR (admittedly, the changes requested for the last two rounds were just tweaking of individual sentences to avoid repeated words and other infelicities of expression). So now I'm turning to the second title in the series, VERA EVERETT, COMIC BOOK STAR, where the kids in the After School Super Stars program will have said farewell to cooking camp and now be immersed in a camp focused on the making of comic books and graphic novels.

This means that I need to start learning something about comic books and graphic novels.

I started with the place that most research these days begins for me: Facebook. Two days ago I posted this query: "Parent friends, teacher friends, librarian friends, what are your kids' favorite comic books?" Within hours I had dozens of titles for my list. Those with multiple mentions include the Dogman series by Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame, Zeta the Spacegirl, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, Big Nate, Babymouse, Bone, and anything by Raina Telgemeier (such as Smile). Yesterday I trotted off to the gorgeous main branch of the Boulder Public Library to confer in person with the librarian there and came home with as many graphic novels as I could stuff in my totebag.

With a small bit of Googling I found online syllabi for classes on making comic books,You Tube videos on how to draw cartoon characters and do the lettering for dialogue and thought bubbles, and Pinterest posts on fun drawing activities for third graders. (I can't have the kids in my book do nothing but sit still and draw for the whole month of the camp - I need lively, active, FUN art-related stuff for them to do! Stuff that will be funny! And relevatory of character! And able to advance a plot!) A friend told me about a comic book camp taking place right now at her child's elementary school right here in Boulder; I'll call them later this morning to see if I can come visit for one afternoon.

The most important part of the whole process, however, will be thinking of Vera herself, now that I've come to know her a bit from meeting her in Nixie's book. What does Vera want or need that the comic book camp will help her get? What obstacles lie in the way of her getting it? And how can all of this happen in 15,000 words (around 70 typed pages)?

Comic book camp, here I come!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Change of Plans

My two little granddaughters, who come to us for ten days a month, were supposed to go back to their mommy on Sunday morning. Their mother lives a four-hour drive away, in distant Craig, Colorado. Our point of exchange, halfway for each of us, is in Kremling. To get there, I have to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel (elevation 11,000 feet); to get there, she has to drive over Rabbit Ears Pass (elevation 9400 feet). It can be sunny and warm in Boulder or Craig on a day when there is driving snow and "traction" laws (chains for trucks, snow tires for cars) in force at the tunnel or pass.

Saturday night at bedtime I saw a winter storm warning for the Colorado high country, so we switched the meeting time from Sunday to Monday. On Monday morning, there were still traction laws in effect at high elevations, so after much dithering and indecision, we decided to wait till my son, with better tires and better driving skills, was finished with his work and could make the drive in my stead; but then mid-morning the weather reports were favorable, so I loaded up Kat and Madi for a drive that ended up taking most of a day that was supposed to be spent meeting work obligations.

Oh, it's so hard to keep changing plans over and over again! I love when the girls come, but I also start to yearn for time to myself, or rather, time to do all the other kinds of work I need to do that I can't do when I'm a full-time caregiver for a two-year-old and a four-year-old: grope toward ideas for the next title in my forthcoming chapter book series for Holiday House, read installments of works-in-progress from my Hollins University graduate students and SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentees, even answer email - or write a blog post.

But that's what life is. We make plans.  Plans change. "Man proposes, God disposes." "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/ gang aft a-gley." "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Indeed.

I didn't plan for a winter storm last weekend. As far as that goes, I didn't plan for my son and his wife to get divorced. I didn't plan to be a ten-days-a-month caregiver for the two little girls I love more than anything in the world just as I took early retirement from being a philosophy professor at CU so I could devote myself full time to my writing. I didn't plan for any of this.

This month I'm doing the poem-a-day challenge again. Here's my favorite of April-so-far: a poem about the dog I didn't plan to have either.

Walking with Tanky-the-Dog

The only good thing about my son's divorce
was supposed to be that she would take 
the dog, but somehow – how did this happen? – 
here he is. We walk every day, the two of us.

Never has earth seen raptures to rival
Tanky's writhing with joy at the sight 
of the leash. He trots beside me, 
small legs churning, so pleased, so proud.

I'm surprised when other people stop
to tell me how cute my dog is. My dog?
Oh, that's right: they must mean Tanky.
If other dogs growl, he is sublimely indifferent. 

But if they don't, he does the obligatory
growling. After all, someone has to do 
whatever it is that needs to be done. And 
sometimes that someone turns out to be you.