Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Your Book Won't Get Written Unless You Write It

I agreed to get the full manuscript of my long-delayed chapter book (set in an after-school coding camp) to my long-suffering editor by June 1.

There was only one problem.

I had written barely any of it because - and this is the sadly crucial part - I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO WRITE.

Despite months of (admittedly somewhat slipshod) research, I still didn't have a firm grip on what kinds of things kids would do in a coding camp. Worse, I didn't have a firm grip on what my protagonist's character arc was going to be: how would she grow and change as a result of a month spent learning how to do coding? And what kinds of plot-generating events could transpire at the camp to make this happen?

These are very significant things not to know about a book one is supposed to be writing. And if I hadn't figured these out after months of fretting, moping, and whining, how on earth could I figure them out in a mere three weeks?

I am here to report that all is well. I figured out most of these things lickety-split.

How, you may ask?


Yes, I learned yet again a lesson I've learned many times before. Although many people praise the power of subconscious creativity and the benefit of gaining perspective on a project by stepping away from it for a period of time (say, for the period right up until three weeks before it is due), and the secretive toil of kindly nocturnal elves, I have found that the only way I have ever gotten a book written - the ONLY way - is by sitting down and starting to write it.

Even though I don't know what to write.

Even though I have no idea how to figure out what to write.

Even though I've forgotten how I ever figured out how to write anything.

If I sit down to write - and commit to writing for a whole entire hour every single day - timed with my trusty hourglass - words start to appear on the page - words written by me. Characters say and think witty things. They make choices that precipitate predicaments. They react to other people's choices and other people's predicaments.

All from just picking up a pen and moving it across the page.

Best, I can then type up the pages and share them with my brilliant writing group who offer insights beyond anything I could ever have generated all by my lonesome before the first word was written. I can leave my meeting with them energized and inspired.

I CAN write a book set in a coding camp! I can! I can!

Five days into serious hour-a-day writing, I'm loving my book. These five hours have given me the best of all gifts from the writing fairies: momentum. When my boys were little, I would ask them, "What does Mommy like?" and they could spout the correct answer: "Progress!" Progress is now being made simply because I am now making it

Oh, darlings, if there is something you need to write, or want to write, or vaguely feel like writing, just sit down and write it. I am here to tell you it really truly won't get written otherwise.

Take it from me, who has just completed a most pleasing revised draft of Chapter Three....

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Moment to Decide

As many of you know, my personal life these days lies in what I cheerfully describe as "flaming ruins."

Well, maybe this description isn't all that cheerful. 

Throughout all my recent Sturm and Drang, I've managed to stay a faithful and engaged professor for the students in my online class for Hollins University (on the figure of the emerging female writer from Little Women to The Poet X); I've continued to work closely with my three mentees through the fabulous mentorship program in our Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Rocky MountainsChapter.

It's relatively easy to do things that absolutely have to be done.

What I haven't managed to do is to make any real progress on my chapter book set in an after-school coding camp. There was no day on which I absolutely had to accomplish any writing, so basically I accomplished next to none. It didn't help that I remain paralyzed with dread at the thought of learning anything at all about computer coding, despite having attended numerous coding workshops and read (well, skimmed) numerous coding books. So I am now a teensy bit behind on delivering that manuscript to my editor; it was due April 1, and so far I've drafted three chapters of ten.

Two days ago she sent me a kindly worded email saying that she really did need to know when (if ever?) I would be able to send her the manuscript, as she needed to finalize her list for Fall 2020. 

Basically, I either have to send the manuscript to her sometime on the soon-ish side, or else my book will have to be postponed until 2021.

That feels like an awfully long time from now.

One of my favorite hymns begins, "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide," with lyrics written in 1845 by poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell. Well, once to every woman and writer also comes the moment to decide, and this was my mine.

In favor of postponing the book:
1. I have enough stress in my life right now. Do I need to add more?
2. This month I still have my Hollins course to finish up, and the three SCBWI mentorships. And promotional efforts for the first book in this series, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, pub date June 4. And my friend Rachel's wedding to attend in Minneapolis on May 18. And a sermon to write and deliver for church. And a week-long visit from my grandchildren.
3. Plus, I'd like to do a good job on the book, not a hasty, half-baked one.

In favor of making a heroic effort to write the book RIGHT NOW:
1. 2021 is SO far away.
2. I'm happiest when I'm writing.
3. I'm happiest when I'm busy.
4. I'm happiest when I have something other to do than mourn and mope, grieve and grumble.
5. Any good job on any project has to begin with a hasty, half-baked one if it's going to begin at all.

So I emailed Margaret and said, "Can I make the Fall 2020 list if I get the manuscript to you by June 1?"

And she emailed back, "I think we can make that work."

This morning I got up, not at 5, but at 3:45, so I could be writing by 4. Because EVERY SINGLE MORNING, to every human being and certainly to every writer, comes the moment to decide. The big decision - do it! - has to be followed by many, many smaller decisions of the form: do at least something on this project right now.

I wrote three handwritten pages. They are not very good pages. But all writers know that not-very-good pages have to come first. I now have three more of them than I had two hours ago. 

I have decided!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Time Spent Dreading versus Time Spent Doing

I have a new book coming out next month. Hooray!

Well, sort of hooray. It would be a bigger hooray if I weren't haunted by guilt at how little I've done to celebrate the arrival into the world of this new book child - when one of my major goals for 2019 was, for the first time, to make a serious effort to promote my books.

Partly it's because I really don't know how to promote a book effectively. I have a theory that nothing authors do in this regard really makes any difference whatsoever, at least compared to the difference made by writing a spectacularly good book.

But I did make a list - a fairly long list - of fairly simple things I ought to be doing:
1. Update my website, which hadn't been updated in . . . could it really be two YEARS?
2. Update my Amazon Author Page.
3. Update my Goodreads Author Page.
4. Reply to emails sent me by a local bookstore in reply to emails I had sent them, about possible events we could do together to publicize the book.
5. Research blogs I might reach out to for a little self-organized blog tour.
6. Contact those blogs.
7. Email my publisher to ask a few questions about how I could build upon their promotion efforts.

All of these were on a list I made on April 21. As of 8:00 this morning, I had done none of them.This meant I had spent two entire WEEKS dreading them.

So I decided this had to be do-or-die day for book promotion - or at least do-or-die morning.

By noon I had done all seven.

Here is a tally of how long each one took. Remember that they had been dreaded for fourteen days, or (not counting ten hours a night for sleeping - yes, I sleep a LOT) 196 hours.

1. Update my website: 1 hour, 45 minutes (105 minutes)
2. Update the Amazon page: 20 minutes
3. Update the Goodreads page: 10 minutes
4. Reply to the bookstore emails: 5 minutes
5. Research blogs: 15 minutes
6. Decide that I'd rather return to the publicists I used before (and adored) than organize a blog tour myself: 5 minutes - and another 5 minutes to email them
7. Email my publisher: 5 minutes

TOTAL 170 minutes - or just shy of 3 hours

196 hours for dreading! 3 hours for doing!

This is a sobering comparison.

It certainly suggests that I could improve my life considerably by cutting back on a few dozen hours of dreading in favor of a few minutes a day of doing.

There is one thing left on the list, which is deal with making bookmarks for the book. I put out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations for bookmark designers/printers and got many helpful suggestions. Now I have to do something about those suggestions. My guess is that, after days of dreading, this will take at most an hour or two.

Maybe, in fact, I should just go and do it right now (or, let's be realistic, first thing tomorrow morning), rather than dread it for another couple of weeks. What do you think?

Yeah, I think that, too.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Cover Reveal for NIXIE NESS and VERA VANCE

With all my life's sadness these past few months, I've sort of forgotten my new year's goal of making this The Year of the New. I was supposed to be doing six big new career-related things I've never done before: 1) teach my first-ever online class (for the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University); 2) write my first book on a topic on which I know nothing (my coding-camp book); 3) make my first serious effort to promote my books; 4) write my first novel-in-verse; 5) write my first 500-word picture book; start submitting my poetry for publication.

Thus far I have neglected all but one of these. I LOVE my online course - I ADORE IT! - and of course teaching is one thing that absolutely cannot be ignored: thank goodness for that. But while I've chugged along - very slowly - on the coding book, I'm way behind where I thought I'd be. I've done nothing at all on any of the other four, including promoting my beloved little book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, which comes out on June 4,  a date now alarmingly near.

I am not a big fan of self-recrimination. I'm probably overly forgiving of my own lapses, all too ready to offer a cheering rationalization for any failure to achieve my own goals. But this time I don't even need to call on my reservoirs of self-satisfaction to excuse my delinquencies. My life has been hard. It's been very hard. It will continue to be hard for at least a few more months. If I was ever allowed to cut myself some slack, now is an an excellent time.

That said, I do feel a pang at neglecting poor Nixie! Oh, my sweet book child! I have done so little to prepare for your imminent birth, despite including "make my first serious effort to promote my books" as #3 on my "New Things" list for the no-longer-new year.

So today - or at least the first two hours of today - is devoted to making amends to Nixie. I've sent out some emails to line up guest blog posts for a little "blog tour" in her honor. I've emailed local bookstores to see if they want to make any fuss over me. And I'm doing the formal "cover reveal" for Nixie and her sister book, Vera Vance, Comics Star (due out next year).

Cover reveals have now become a thing. (One poet friend asked recently, when did "becoming a thing" become a thing?) Just as expectant parents now host parties where guests can watch them discover the gender of their soon-to-be-born child, authors now take over social media so the whole world can behold the finalized cover of their soon-to-be-born book. As soon as I finish sharing these two covers in this blog post, I'll dash off to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to continue in this task.

Universe: here are the covers for Nixie Ness, Cooking Star and Vera Vance, Comics Star, courtesy of brilliant illustrator Grace Zong (universe, thank you for partnering me with Grace on this series) and fabulous publisher Holiday House (universe, thank you for letting me find my publishing home here).

Drum roll!

Expectant pause!

And now:

Aren't they adorable? Yes, they are!!!!

Oh, universe, thank you for this!

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Best of It: Part II

We are advised that when life gives us lemons, we should make lemonade, and that when life gives us limes, we should make a gin and tonic.

But sometimes we're just so sad - so sad - so sad. It's hard to summon the strength - and the chirpy cheeriness - to do anything at all positive about the situation. The situation, in fact, is so terrible that we feel we would dishonor its tragedy by even trying to rouse ourselves to go forward.

We just want to lie amidst the ruins of what once was our life, cursing the universe and sobbing.

Some of this is good and right and necessary.

Especially the sobbing.

I've done my share of sobbing over the past couple of weeks, as my husband, diagnosed with advanced Parkinson's last year, has continued to decline in strength and mobility. A week ago, after several 911 calls in succession to pick him up off the floor after a fall, and his near-total inability to get off the couch at all without professional assistance, he ended up in the hospital. Now he's in a rehab center for a week? or two? or three? Seeing if he can regain the ability to function enough to move back home - or ??

What will the future be for him?

What will the future be for me?

What will the future be for us?

The rehab center is about half an hour's drive from home, and I go there every day, so this whole episode in our lives is not only heartbreaking, but time-consuming. This month I'm also teaching an online course for the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, and working with three aspiring writers through the mentoring program sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and writing a book of my own under contract (my most challenging title yet - the book set in a coding camp for kids, where I know - or at least initially knew - nothing whatsoever about coding).

I can't just give up on these projects. And I don't want to. This current heartbreaking situation is not one that is going away any time soon. This is not a sprint. It's not even a marathon. It's the way my life is going to be for the foreseeable future.

Somehow I HAVE to find a way to go on living - and working - and even (dare I say) being happy.

So the other day, I packed up a tote bag filled with all kinds of tantalizing and delicious work projects: a book to read for my class, my laptop so I could respond to my students' delightful posts on last week's reading, mentee manuscripts to review, my clipboard and pad of paper and favorite pen for scribbling notes for Chapter 3 of my book.

When my sister and I were growing up, one of our favorite ways to spend a day was with what we called "Personal Business." We each had a pegboard box: a rectangular box with a sliding wooden lid marked with holes where you could insert colored pegs. We had long lost the pegs, but the boxes remained. We'd fill them up with a book to read, a poem to write, homework to do, a potholder to weave with those little cloth loops on a little metal frame. Then we'd get into our beds, each with our Personal Business, and work side by side.

A few Christmases ago I opened my present from my sister, and somehow, on Ebay, or wherever, she had found . . . . matching  pegboard boxes for each of us! (Small teddy bear in the photo for scale):
This cherished pegboard box, alas, is too small to hold all my current work projects. But as I packed them up to take to the rehab center, I suddenly remembered the pegboard days. I would spend a morning doing Personal Business as I visited Rich at the Powerback rehab center!

And so I did. As Rich lay in bed, watching TV, dozing a bit, or was wheeled off to physical or occupational therapy, I sat curled up in a nearby armchair, sending emails, reading for my class, and making some notes for my book. Of course, we also chatted - and laughed at old jokes and memories - and just kept each other company.

My morning was productive - and cozy - and companionable - and comforting.

My morning was . . .  lovely.

I still don't know what the future holds for him, or for me. But maybe . . . just maybe . . . it will be okay - in not a Plan B way, but a Plan Q or R or S or P way - for both of us.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Best of It: Part I

My life in the past year has moved so far past optimal that I now consider myself somewhat a specialist in the domain of the sub-optimal. I'm not only learning to make my peace with Plan B, but Plan C, D, E, F, and G. (This recalls the conversation I had with a young reader of my books who told me blithely that poor grades at school never daunted her. "The worst they can give you is an F! It's not like they give you an X, Y, or Z!")

I'm slowly learning how to make the best of it, even if my favorite poet, Kay Ryan, gives a somewhat dim assessment of this project in one of my favorite of her poems (quoted in full in the New York Times review of her Pulitzer-winning collection also titled The Best of It.) Sometimes making the best of it turns out to be something beautiful.

First (tiny) case in point. (Bigger, sadder, bittersweeter case in point to follow in my next post.)

This past week I was scheduled to speak about my forthcoming book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association spring conference: I'd be one of twelve authors (including nine authors of "grownup" books) giving a five-minute pitch for my title at their "Author! Author"! dinner. I was thrilled that my publisher had arranged this opportunity for me.

The only problem was that on the day of the conference a "cyclone-bomb-blizzard" was predicted, with driving winds and accumulating snow.

I have mentioned before that after totaling my previous car on a slushy road two years ago, I do NOT drive in snow. Or like to be in the car when anyone else is driving in snow.

So: what to do?

To drive in a cyclone-bomb-blizzard was not an option.

Missing the conference was not an option, either.

Maybe the predicted snow would not materialize?

But maybe it would.


Then my writer friend Kim Tomsic, who was also speaking at the booksellers' dinner, and I made a plan - a most excellent plan indeed. We would book a room at the hotel for that night! A sleepover!!!!! And we'd drive down to the hotel hours and hours ahead of the storm! Time to chat! Time to work! Time to lie on our beds!!!!!

And so we did. The blizzard did turn out to be not so bad, so maybe we could have driven home that night. But wasn't it lovely not to have to worry about the weather at all? And to lie on those beds side by side, doing our own projects, while also exclaiming over how brilliant we were to have thought of such a splendid plan?

Our beautiful room in the lovely Origin Red Rocks Hotel had a little magnetic message board in it; the next morning I came out of the shower before our breakfast-by-the-fireplace to see that Kim had left me this message:
Well, I love Kim, too. And I loved having a sleepover together.

Sometimes making the best of it turns out to be best of all.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Kerlan Award 2019

I returned yesterday from one of the sweetest and proudest moments of my children's book writing career: accepting this year's Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota Libraries.

The Kerlan Collection (quoting from its website) is "one of the world's great children's literature archives. The Kerlan Collection contains more than 100,000 children's books as well as original manuscripts, artwork, galleys, and color proofs, and other production materials for 1,700 authors and illustrators." And one of those 1,700 authors and illustrators is me! 

I've been sending my handwritten manuscripts - and detailed handwritten notes - and marked-up typescripts - and critique group comments - and editorial letters - to the Kerlan Collection for decades. It's a thrill to me to think of the humble beginnings of each of my 56 published books to date being preserved there in the company of works by so many children's authors I revere. 

I've delighted in the Kerlan Collection as scholar as well as author. In May of 2017 I spent a blissful week there doing archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books, which I love beyond all other books ever written in the history of the world.

So this week's trip was in every way a joy for me.

The University of Minnesota campus spans the mighty Mississippi River, so on the morning of my special day, I walked across the long bridge to savor the view.
I had the whole day to myself, up until the evening awards ceremony, so I also toured the Weisman Art Museum designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Of course I couldn't resist taking a picture of these gorgeous poppies by Georgia O'Keeffe.
The universe kindly arranged for the award ceremony to take place while the Kerlan's absolutely stunning exhibit, The ABC of It, was on display. First shown in New York, the exhibit, curated by Leonard S. Marcus, was adapted by the Kerlan to showcase its stunning collection of materials from the history of children's literature. 

So I wandered by this replica of the Great Green Room of Goodnight Moon.

Every object on display took my breath away, but the one that meant most to me personally was the opening page of the manuscript of Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family. There it was!!
The trip was made even sweeter by the presence of one of my life's dearest friends, Rachel, and her soon-to-be-husband, Peter. They came to the awards event, and to the dinner the night before, and once the festivities were completed, we had time to play together in this beautiful city - visiting Minnehaha Falls (a site commemorated as well in the Betsy-Tacy series) and attending a fabulous production of one of my favorite plays, Cyrano de Bergerac, at the famed Guthrie Theater.
Best of all, on the trip I even wrote Chapter Two of my chapter-book-in-progress, set in a third-grade after-school coding camp. I adore writing chapters in Other Places, so that every time I read them over I can remember . . .oh, that's what I wrote at breakfast at the Marriott Courtyard by the University of Minnesota... that's what I wrote at Rachel and Peter's beautiful arts-and-crafts-style bungalow...

I'm home now. The doorbell just rang, and it was flowers  - for me! in celebration of my award! from my wonderful new publisher, Holiday House! I feel like a movie star! But mostly I just feel grateful: to the Kerlan for all it has contributed to the world of children's literature - and for an award given to me by an institution I so love and respect - and for a publisher who is so supportive - and for beloved friends who shared this moment with me this week.
Thank you, thank, you, thank you!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Love Letter to Children's Literature Festivals

I spent most of this weekend at the second annual Children's Festival of Stories in Denver.

Every minute of it was wonderful.

Sometimes I wonder why I commit to attending events like this, where I spend hours and hours sitting at my little station, one of forty authors, all of us hoping to promote our books to the passersby. My featured book for the festival this year was my middle-grade novel Write This Down, targeted to ages eight to twelve; the average age of children attending such events is more like two to six. I knew I wouldn't sell very many books; I knew it wouldn't catapult me to fame and fortune.

But the minute I got there I remembered - oh!!! oh!!!! oh!!!! I go to festivals like this because they are so joyous - a huge, energizing, inspirational, beautiful celebration of books and readers, and all the people involved in bringing the two together: authors, illustrators, editors, teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers.

I loved speaking on a panel to an audience of educators on Friday night, together with my brilliant fellow panelists Denise Vega, Laura Roettiger, Beth Anderson, Natasha Wing, and Abby Cooper. Here I am with Laura, both of us looking as smiley as can be.

I loved seeing writer friends from afar whom I had met at previous festivals: Donna Gephart and Kate Milford (who became my friend just because we were seated in alphabetical order last time).

I loved seeing beloved local writer friends like Jean Reidy, Kim Tomsic, and Melanie Crowder. Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!

I fell in love with the author sharing my table at the festival: Alidis Vincente, attending from New Jersey - a fellow Jersey girl!

I loved having children wander by my table and tell me they want to be writers, too. I loved their T-shirts, like the one that said "Bookmarks are for quitters." I loved having one of them tell me how much she had loved my book Kelsey Green, Reading Queen when she was younger.

I loved staying in a hotel! My own room! My own bed! That gleaming shower! And having breakfast in the hotel restaurant sitting by the fireplace!

Usually the part I do NOT love about festivals is seeing everyone else arrive with terrific displays for their table - or costumes! - or props! or adorable giveaways! or candy! - while I have none. I'm just so averse to self-promotion - and so averse to lugging stuff with me when I travel - just so averse to STUFF! So in the past, I'd look at THEIR huge amounts of stuff and get all, well, stuffy about it. Since when did writing become all about marketing, rather than simply making the best books possible? Count me out!

But this time, just as I was starting to get stuffy - and huffy - and starchy - and sniffy - I thought, hmm, maybe it would be FUN to bring stuff? After all, the children attending adore getting and making stuff. My own granddaughters would adore getting and making stuff. Maybe it was time to say: Count me in!

So I sat down at my bare little table (the flowers and bright yellow star and sign were provided by the festival, with not one speck of anything else provided by me). And I started to make a list of "swag" I could have next time.
I won't present the list here, but it's a long one. And a good one. Most swaggy, indeed.

I can do swag!! And next time I will! And come in costume, too! Just you wait and see!

So yay for festivals. Yay for everything about them. And yay for the chance to have even more fun at my swag-festooned booth at the next one.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Done with Self-Pity Forever!

Here are the headings for some recent entries in my trusty little notebook where I record all my troubles and seek guidance - from the little notebook, of course - in facing them.

March sadness - SO SAD, SO SAD

How can I survive this season of sadness?

I am still SO SAD - lost in sadness 

Sadness update - I am still sad


I am still so sad - and so stuck!

In reply, I filled two notebook pages with a list of all the ways that the problems in my life could be even worse. This left me strangely unconsoled.

I made a list of ten fun, spirit-lifting things to do. I didn't feel like doing any of them.

I made a list of twenty blessings - and I have to say it's a pretty staggering list. I might be the most fortunate person in the history of the world.

And yet . .  I was still spending every day doing Sudoku - my age-old vice - for hours on end, and pointless Internet searches for possible prizes I might have won that someone forgot to tell me about. Plus sleeping for eleven hours at night - why get up? Plus telling everybody who asked how listless and depressed I've been. Plus blogging about my blippettes, and their degrees of blippiness, making everyone else feel sorry for me, too.

Then this morning, I put the issue in its bluntest form to the little notebook:

I HAVE to change this! 

I quoted to myself my favorite line from one of the songs in Matilda: The Musical:

"But nobody else is going to put it right for me.
Nobody but me is going to change my story."

Then I wrote:


And. . . it did. Though this is also the time to say that last week the little notebook told me to resume the anti-depressant medication that I gave up several months ago thinking I no longer needed it. The little notebook sent me to renew the prescription, and I did, and for a 90-day supply of Effexor (or its generic substitute), the grand total was. . . .$1.59!!!! For less than two cents a day I could feel less hopeless about everything in my life. So, dear friends, while medication doesn't work for everyone, if it does work for you, don't deny yourself this help. Please don't. I think the little notebook was able to help me work through my season of sadness largely because it first sent me to the pharmacy to get what I desperately needed.

So here is what the little notebook told me this morning. And now I'm finally listening.

1. Start writing the book you need to be writing. MAKE THIS PRIORITY #1 IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW. START IT TODAY.

2. No Sudoku ever! Delete the app from the I-Pad right now!

3. Blog about something happy. (I guess this is something happy. And my next post will be purely happy, I promise.)

4. Allow yourself fun-filled outings, despite all the work you have. You do have time for this. In fact, you don't have time NOT to do this.

5. Stop telling yourself and everyone else how depressed you are. This isn't helping.

6. Review the blessing list daily. Commit it to memory.

7. Make a fierce, unshakable commitment to joy.

I made this list and in the next two hours these things happened. A coincidence? I think not.

After months of procrastination I sat down and wrote the first sentence - and then the first half of a page - for my new book. Nothing in my life has ever felt so good.

I opened a card that came in the mail yesterday, and it contained a stunningly generous gift from anonymous "writer friends" to serve as "blip balm" for my recent small misfortunes. I will never ever forget the kindness of these friends as long as I live.

A friend texted me to ask if I could join her for a funny play in Denver tonight - The Play That Goes Wrong - because her daughter can't use her ticket.

I changed the sheets on the bed and did laundry.

I opened the windows and let some warm spring sunshine waft its way into the room.

As of this minute, I'm done with self-pity. Maybe not done forever - let's not make promises we can't keep - but for now.

For now is enough.

For now is everything.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

De-Blippifying Blippettes

Last week was a bad week for me in the blippette department: 1) lost wallet; 2) precious package destroyed by the U.S. Post Office; 3) all my tax documents, en route to my tax-whiz sister, somehow sidetracked to a U.S. Post Office processing center in Palatine, Illinois, where they have languished for the past week; 4) water leaking from somewhere outside the house into the attic and down through the ceiling light fixture into the kitchen and dripping onto the kitchen table.

Too many blippettes!

But I am here to report that three out of these four blippettes turned out to be much less blippy than originally supposed.

1) It took me only three hours, all told, to replace the contents of the lost wallet. Lines at the DMV were remarkably short - indeed, there were no lines whatsoever. I walked right up to the counter and had my new license in fifteen minutes. And now I am set until 2024. Replacing my University of Colorado ID took longer, as it involved a walk across the sprawling campus, but hey, I like to walk. I was told I'd be charged $25 for the new ID, but instead I was charged just $5. Not so terrible!

2) I will mourn the loss of the precious package always. But there is a strange relief in realizing that nothing can be done about it, nothing at all, except to grieve.

3) Every single day for the past week I've gotten the same message from the tax-package tracking (with date and time altered for each one):
The Postal Service has identified a problem with the processing of this item at 4:07 pm on March 7, 2019 in PALATINE IL DISTRIBUTION CENTER. The local facility has been alerted and is taking steps to correct the problem.
But I have come to realize that the needed steps are not indeed being taken, because they are so ridiculously easy that if they had been taken the problem would have been solved instantly: either mail the package on to my sister or mail the package back to me. So instead I've taken steps to replace the needed documents, which also turned out to be not that huge of a hassle at all, once I realized I had to do it. I was reminded of this line from my writer friend Laura Deal: "Activity is the antidote to anxiety." Now I am mildly amused by the daily texts from the Postal Service, rather than consumed with sick dread and impotent rage.

4) The roofer who installed the roof came to look at the leak, and it's NOT the roof that's leaking, it's some other problem with the gutters, and the heating cable that was supposed to be melting the ice in them but has failed. He has been extremely helpful and jolly in diagnosing the problem and figuring out to fix it.

Oh, blippettes, you were, for the most part, so small after all, and yet I wasted so much time agonizing about you. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, "I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." Well, my blippettes happened, but they turned out to be not so blippy, after all.

I created the word "blippette" for problems that were too small to qualify as blips, but maybe I need a new word for problems that don't even qualify as blippettes: maybe just "ettes" - though I don't see that catching on. So I'll stick with "blippettes," but try to keep them in perspective (and hope that no new ones come my way in the coming week).

Sunday, March 3, 2019

How Many Blippettes Add Up to a Blip?

Last week I lost my wallet. I decided to go on living, anyway. This was not even a blip, I declared. It was a mere blippette!

Since then, however, blippettes have proliferated in my life at an alarming rate.

I shipped a precious package, and its expensive and irreplaceable contents were lost in the mail; only the lid of the box was delivered, with a note from the U.S. Postal Service saying "WE CARE."

I mailed all my W-2 and 1099 tax forms to my math-whiz sister in Indiana, who does my taxes each year for me. The post office tracking information reports that they are now languishing somewhere in Illinois. There was no mention of whether or not the U.S. Postal Service cares.

This morning my granddaughter noticed a steady drip-drip-drip of water from the lamp fixture over the kitchen table. Lamps do not generally drip water. Alas, the new roof installed with a zillion-year guarantee just a few years ago is leaking water from roof to attic, and from attic to light fixture to kitchen table.


This is too many blippettes for one person in one week! Especially for a person, I might note, who also has her share of what anyone would say are real problems, too.

So here is what I'm trying to remind myself today.

Each of these annoyances, numerous as they have become, is nonetheless still a blippette.

That said, blippettes do add up. However, when they add up, they are still only blips.

Ahh, but don't blips themselves add up to something bigger? After all, enough trivial expenditures add up to a huge credit card bill; enough small savings deposits add up to a comfortable retirement.The whole premise of this blog - and of my entire writing career - is that a mere hour a day spent writing can add up to dozens of published books over the span of a lifetime.

Little things add up to big things. That is an indisputable fact.

But . . . this is another indisputable fact: while it is not up to me how much time these blippettes end up taking, or how much money they end up costing, it IS up to me how blippy I allow them to be. I can still decide to sigh and shrug and then remember that other people on this earth have also had packages go astray in the mail. I am not the only human being ever to have a leaky roof. In fact, billions of people on this planet don't even have a roof to leak. I can decide how much psychic energy to give to bewailing even FOUR BLIPPETTES IN A SINGLE WEEK.

This week my cumulative tally of blippettes has definitely amounted to a blip. But even a blip is not the end of the world, or even a reliable omen of the approaching end of the world. It's just a reason to eat a few extra handfuls of jelly beans and not one, not two, but three Russell Stover cream eggs, now on sale in the holiday aisle at King Soopers.

I'm off to have the strawberry cream one now.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Things Not to Complain About

I lost my wallet yesterday.

Somehow (but HOW??!!) between the time I paid for parking at the Denver Family Fest, where I was signing books at the Tattered Cover Bookstore booth, and the time the delighttful events coordinator for the store handed me my parking reimbursement, my wallet disappeared.

Could I possibly have left it on the seat in the car? Oh, please let it be on the seat of the car!

It wasn't.

I retraced my steps through the dirty slush from car to venue, twice, staring down at the ground.

No wallet.

I inquired at the Lost and Found. Yes, they had found a wallet! Hooray!

But it wasn't mine.

Slowly the truth dawned on me. The wallet was gone, and I wasn't going to get it back. I was going to have to replace driver's license, credit card, ATM card, King Soopers grocery card, King Soopers reloadable gift card, University of Colorado faculty ID (which serves as my university library card), Boulder Public Library card, membership cards for the Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Art Museum, the Botanic Gardens, health insurance card, dental insurance card. . .. WAHHHH!!!

This was Just the Kind of Thing That Always Happens to Me.

This was an Omen That the Rest of Life Was Going to Be Ruined.

This was the Biggest Pain in the History of the World!

But now, the day after, I'm gradually putting this into perspective.

This is not the kind of thing that always happens to me. Instead, it's the kind of thing that happens to just about everybody who is lucky enough to have a wallet in the first place. It's an absolutely common irritation of modern living.

This is not an omen that the rest of my life is going to be ruined. In fact, it's not an omen of anything. Because there is NO SUCH THING AS OMENS!

And it's not the biggest pain in the history of the world. It is a very small pain. It's not even big enough to count as a blip; it's what I call a blippette.

I should not be railing against the universe because of a blippette.

So here is the list of things, for future reference, that I'm telling myself not to complain about:

1. Loss/damage for anything that is fully replaceable.
2. Loss/damage where replacement will cost less than $100.
3. Loss/damage where replacement will take less than 3-4 hours. Or even 6.
4. Loss/damage of anything that doesn't really matter.
5. Loss/damage of things that are commonly lost, where losing them is just a part of life and nothing the slightest bit remarkable.

That is a pretty good list. Losing my wallet is beneath the threshold for complaint on all five criteria.
It's a blippette. And just the word "blippette" makes me smile.

Good-bye, wallet! Hello, long line at the DMV to get a replacement license! (I'll take a book to read.)

And the rest of my life is going to be just fine.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Reading Across Borders

I've been in writing groups for my entire career, but I've never been in a long-running reading group, except during the several years when I teaching at DePauw University in Indiana, where I was a temporary member of the Janeites (which began each year with re-reading a beloved Jane Austen text).

Now, however, I surprised myself by becoming not only a member but the founder of a book group that is well into its second year. The idea for it popped into my head at the start of 2018, after a certain president was quoted as making a certain remark about U.S. immigration policy: that we didn't want people coming here from "sh-t hole countries." That week, in reply, someone posted on Facebook a link to an article providing a list of fabulous books by authors from just these denigrated countries. Ooh! I thought. I should read those books! Then: double-ooh! I thought. Why don't I put a post of my own on Facebook inviting other intrepid readers to join me?

Over a dozen people responded, from all different parts of my life - other children's book authors, former philosophy students, a friend from church, a friend whose daughters attended elementary school with my boys. Because most of the people in the group didn't know each other, except through me, we don't spend much time in our meetings on chit-chat. Instead we leap right in to talk about . . . the BOOK! Soon we outgrew the original "sh-t-hole-country" list and started nominating other titles, with the only proviso that we would focus our attention on other countries, other cultures, other viewpoints.

Here are the titles the New Voices Book Group has read thus far (many of these authors, listed here by their country of origin, now live and write in the U.S. or the U.K.).

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi of Kenya
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue of Cameroon
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (poetry collection), by Warsan Shire, of Somalia/Kenya
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvado (read in translation)
The Art of Dying by Edwidge Danticat of Haiti
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, by Native American poet Joy Harjo
The Original Dream by Nukila Amal of Indonesia (read in translation)
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy of India
Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang (whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from China)
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (an African-American trans woman)
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents)
Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban poetry, edited by Lori Marie Carlson and Oscar Hijelos

Next up:
Ghachar Gochar by Vivek Shanbhag of India, translated from the Kannada language
Women without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Shahrnush Parispur of Iran
Night School: A Reader for Adults, by Zsofia Ban of Hungary
Confessions of the Lioness but Mia Couto of Mozambique and Brazil

I haven't loved all these books - my least favorites were The Original Dream and Binti - but there hasn't been one I regretted reading and talking about with this little band of adventurous readers. My world is bigger now than it was a year ago, and for that I am grateful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Too Much of a Good Thing

I love decluttering.

I love decluttering so much that I seldom even get the chance to do any, as I tend not to acquire clutter in the first place.

That said, even ardent declutterers can usually find SOMETHING more to get rid of. So in January (inspired in part by the Marie Kondo craze that was sweeping the country from her new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo), I set myself the goal of ridding my house of 365 items for the coming year, one per day.

I ended up meeting the goal within the week, finally making myself part with some books I will truly never miss. Did I need a second - or THIRD - copy of certain childhood favorites? Did I need faded paperback copies of classic novels that are easily available in much more attractive editions from the public library? No, I did not.

But sometimes even I admit to the joy of owning something in reckless abundance. I can't make myself part with the two huge plastic tubs of Beanie Babies from the years when my two growing sons would each get a Beanie Baby in his Christmas stocking, in his Easter basket, for his birthday, and several as souvenirs on every family trip. I also couldn't make myself haul away a bunch of old pillows - though here I didn't particularly want to keep them, I just didn't want to send still useful pillows to the landfill (donation centers and recycling facilities won't accept them).

So when my two little granddaughters were here last week, and it snowed too hard for us to get out one day, I dragged down the Beanie Baby tubs from the attic.
It IS fun to have such a huge heap of them, no?

And the pillows served to make a roof for a playhouse, and a floor for a playhouse, as well as a door.
This final picture is not of my own stash of costume jewelry, but jewelry at the home of Kataleya's best friend, whose home contains more entertaining objects and overwhelmingly fun play opportunities for little girls, I'm convinced, than any other place on earth.
I remain a devotee of Marie Kondo, and I plan to revel in more decluttering in the future, but I'll give the closing words here to Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Snowy Day Solution

It was just over two years ago that I was driving down a slushy road in Boulder when this happened:
One moment I was happily heading off on errands, the next moment I lost control of my car on a curvy stretch (even though I was driving at my usual slowpoke speed), the moment after that I smacked into a huge utility pole, and suddenly it was A TERRIBLE HORRIBLE NO GOOD VERY BAD DAY.

I have since felt disinclined to drive in slush, sleet, ice, or snow.

This morning I had a scheduled author visit to Namaqua Elementary School in Loveland, about an hour's drive from Boulder. But the weather forecast called for my least-favorite kind of precipitation to come falling from the sky. WAHHH! I warned my host that I might need to cancel if the roads were bad, wimpy baby that I have become, wimpy baby that I intend to stay. But, oh, it's a sad thing to cancel a school visit when it was set up months ago, and the kids are looking forward to it, and there's no guarantee that the same kind of white stuff won't fall from the sky on an alternate date.

Instead a brilliant idea popped into my brain.

The snow wasn't expected until 6:30 a.m. What if I left home at 5:30? I'd arrive at Loveland an hour and a half before school opened at 8, but surely Loveland has coffee shops, and I adore writing in coffee shops. I'd still have to drive home afterward, of course, but I'd be in no rush and could dawdle my way back down to Boulder.


So early this morning I drove for an hour in the darkness, thankful every minute that I wasn't driving in any whiteness. The snow started falling - fast and furious - a few minutes before I arrived at the lovely Coffee Tree cafe on Fourth Street.

For the next hour I sat as snug and cozy as could be, scribbling down picture ideas, as I signed up for the 12 x 12 picture book challenge (to write a picture book each month for the year) and hadn't yet done anything toward meeting January's goal.
The drive to the school was still bad, but at least it was bad for three miles instead of thirty. The kids at Namaqua Elementary were great, and I even had another picture book idea pop into my head as I walked down the halls studying the student work on display. The drive home was bad, too, but at least the weather was now sunny.

Jubilant over my own cleverness, I borrowed Peter Pan's words and crowed to myself, "How clever I am! Oh, the cleverness of me!"

Admittedly, it isn't the VERY best evidence of cleverness to be someone who occasionally totals a car on a slippery road. But it's hard to beat the cleverness of giving myself the treat of an hour spent writing in a charming cafe while also driving an un-smashed car to Loveland and back on a snowy day.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Wisdom from Computer Coding

My current children's book-in-progress is requiring me to learn about a topic on which I hitherto knew nothing: coding.

I've written two books so far in my new chapter-book series, After-School Superstars. Each book takes place in a different month-long after-school "camp." Nixie Ness, Cooking Star is coming out in June of this year; I'm now working through the copy-edited manuscript for Vera Vance, Comics Star, which will be published in early 2020.

For the third book, I've been asked to feature a camp on coding. "Sure!" I said, even though I wasn't quite sure what coding was. I asked my younger son if he ever does any coding (he's a software engineer for a company in Chicago). "Mom! I do coding all day every day!" "Oh," I said. "I thought you did computer programming." "Mom! That's what coding is!"

So now I'm learning about coding. I attended two terrific "Hour of Code" workshops at Stott Elementary in Arvada, and I'm starting to attend some sessions of the Computer Club at Boulder Country Day School. I hauled home a big stack of books from the library, of which the two most helpful have been Coding for Kids: Create Your Own Videogames with Scratch and Helping Kids with Coding for Dummies (where I am surely the biggest dummy who will ever read it).

Here's what I've learned so far: Coding is fun! Kids adore it! At Stott Elementary the kids actually begged to be able to miss recess to keep on coding their "dance party."

The program you create either works, or it doesn't. If it works, it's a thrill. When his program finally worked, one boy kept shouting, "I'm a coding genius! I'm a complete genius!"

When it doesn't work, guess what? You can look at your program and figure out why it didn't work and fix it! As Megan (the brilliant teacher who ran the coding workshop at Stott), told her students, "Debugging is a huge part of coding. If something doesn't work, TRY SOMETHING ELSE." Ooh!!! That insight could be the heart of my book right there. Here's another great life lesson from Coding for Kids: "There is never just one possible solution to a problem!" Ooh!!! That insight could be my mantra as I wrestle with creating my plot.

I haven't actually tried coding myself yet... but I will soon. (Yikes!!!) What deep and important life truths will I discover in the process?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Starting the New Year a Few Days Late

I love the start of a new year so much. In addition to my major goal each year (for 2019 it's to embrace the new by undertaking six completely new work projects), I always have a bunch of piddly goals as well. Drink more water. Eat more veggies. Faithfully walk 10,000 steps a day. Radically declutter my house. Get serious about frugality. Make a budget and stick to it this time.

Alas, for the first few days of this new year I accomplished none of these. None! My little granddaughters were visiting until January 5, and it was bitter cold, so I had no proper walks. I spent freely on outings to the Bounce Place, Gym Jam, swimming at the North Boulder Rec Center, meals at Tandoori Grill and Tsing Tao. Plus, since I was already on a spending spree, I bought a new nightgown online as well. I didn't have even an hour to myself to get any real work done, as four-year-old Kataleya gets up as freakishly early as I do.

After just five days, 2019 was already ruined. Forget 2019! It wasn't working out for me at all. All I could do was slog grimly through the remaining 360 days and then pin all my hopes on 2020.

Fortunately, in the nick of time, I decided instead to salvage the situation and restart the new year on January 6, Epiphany Sunday.

So yesterday I drank five glasses of water. I went grocery shopping and returned with heaps of veggies. For dinner I made a huge pot of vegetarian chili stuffed full of carrots, brussels sprouts, and green beans, as well as three kinds of other beans, served over brown rice. I tallied up the money in my purse - $250 - and decided to limit myself to just that amount of cash for all discretionary spending for the month. I rounded up twenty-five items (yes, I counted them) to donate to Goodwill. And I spent a good solid hour on my first work project of the year. Hooray for the new me of 2019!

Now, I know all too well from past experience that today I might eat fewer veggies (though there is a LOT of that chili left over), and make some online purchase I'll regret. Plus, when February comes, the little girls will return for another ten-day visit. The new year's enthusiastic program of self-improvement can't be sustained.

But still... 

Sometimes I think I owe everything I've ever achieved in my life to these fits of fervor for starting something new. This is why I start a new life not only every January 1 (or January 6, in this case), but the first day of every month (or the tenth day now, once the little girls depart). Thank goodness for at least a few days each month of healthy eating, faithful walking, frantic decluttering, bans on spending, and diligent toil on the work projects at hand.

How I love January, and Mondays, and early mornings . . . all beginnings. As the proverb goes, "Well begun is half done." Or as Mark Twain said, "The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

I'm started on 2019 now - a few days late - but I'm started!

Watch out, world! (For the next few days at least), here I come!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

My NEW Goal for the NEW Year

For the last two years I eschewed the usual dreary list of resolutions in favor of focusing on one single bigger goal. My only requirement was that the goal had to be delicious: something that would give me a little shiver of joy every time I thought about it. For 2017, my goal was to submit something somewhere every single month; for 2018 my goal was to have ten hours of creative joy each month. I loved every minute spent achieving both of them.

I floundered a bit as I thought about what my goal for 2019 should be. (Actually, I floundered a bit until I found the goals for 2017 and 2018 as well). Here's what I've chosen, reminding myself that any goal can be revisited, and certainly fine-tuned, as the year progresses.

This is the year I turn 65 - how can this be? I, who still feel ten years old inside? Becoming an official senior citizen does mark a person as officially, in the eyes of the world, old. Or at least, old-ish. So my goal for the year is to embrace THE NEW.

One of my friends, author Tara Dairman, does this in a way that is particularly delightful. She makes a list, written on little pieces of paper, of a whole bunch of things she hasn't done before, things that push her out of her comfort zone and even scare her. She puts the jumbled scraps of paper into a jar and plucks one out each month. Her "new things" have included: 1) get a radically different haircut; 2) go on a social media fast; 3) try being vegan for a month; 4) cook one new recipe each week for a month; and 5) volunteer for a cause she believes in.

There's a whole book called I Dare Me, by Lu Ann Cahn, where the author shares how she shook up her stagnant life by doing a whopping 365 new things, one every single day for the course of an entire year.

I have found, however, that I do best with annual goals that are more narrowly work-focused, as I adore GETTING STUFF DONE. So for 2019, I am going to undertake six different, totally new-to-me work projects:

1. Teaching my first-ever online course (for the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University);
2) Writing my first book on a topic on which I initially knew absolutely nothing (a chapter book set in a club where kids are learning how to do coding);
3) Making my first serious effort to promote my books (as my After-School Superstars chapter book series launches in June);
4) Writing my first verse novel;
5) Making my first real attempt to publish the poems I've been writing for a decade now;
6) Writing and submitting my first shorter-than-500-word picture book (I published several picture books, many years ago, but they were twice as long in terms of text than the new word limit that has become all-but-mandatory these days).

This list lacks the appealing focus on the MONTH as a unit, which I've come to believe is crucial for life goals. I've become wary of any goal that requires me to do something every single day: miss one day, and it's all ruined! To focus on the year as a whole invites procrastination until a frenzied December arrives - another recipe for ruination. So I'm imposing a (weak) monthly structure onto this list.

The first two items on the list are guaranteed to happen simply because they have to. Students are already enrolled in the online course, which will run February-May, and the coding book is already under contract. Here my goal will not result in my achieving something I wouldn't have otherwise accomplished; instead it transforms my attitude toward what I'm already committed to doing. Instead of thinking "An online course? Yikes!!!!" or "Coding?????!!! Are you KIDDING ME, UNIVERSE?" I'm going to be thinking: "Ooh! An online course! What an adventure!" and "Coding!! Way to revitalize that aging brain!"

The second two items on the list are the most important to me. I just HAVE to do better at promoting my books if I'm going to continue to get them published in today's more competitive market, and I'm yearning toward this verse novel with every fiber of my being. Yet these goals are in danger of getting pushed aside by the urgency of the first two. So here I'm committing to logging ten hours a month from January through June on each one.

By June, the online course will be done, the coding book will be written and submitted, and the series will be launched (though there will be plenty of follow-up promotion afterward). Here is where I will turn to the final two new projects: publishing my poems and writing a picture book, logging ten hours a month on each of these, as well as on the verse novel - or maybe five hours a month? I can tweak the plan as needed. Tweaking is all to the good.

So that's the plan! It's a bit unwieldy compared to the crisply focused plans for 2017 and 2018, but I do feel excited about it, and that's all that really matters. I will prove to myself that even four decades into my career, I can still do something NEW! In fact, SIX new things! And find joy in doing them.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, "And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been."