It’s All About the Process

Like Kate and Leo’s love, my revision process goes on…and on.

Good friend, brilliant writer, and fellow Lesley MFA type, Sabrina Fedel, tagged me as part of an on-going “My Writing Process” blog tour. Since it’s good to stop sometimes—especially when you’re in the throes of something like writing a creative thesis—and really ponder what on earth it is that you’re doing, I took up the call. So, without further ado, here’s my two cents.

What am I working on?

Um, it’s complicated? My thesis is a historical fantasy novel set in the late eighteen hundreds and told in three voices. If this sounds more ambitious than it strictly speaking should be, that’s because it is. It has entailed an absurd amount of very hard work just to get a first draft completed, and will continue to require the same for near, as well as distant, future. BUT…I love this story with all of my heart and soul, and so the researching and revising will, like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s love in Titanic, go on and on. Hopefully the end result will be less tragic, however.

Now that I have Celine Dion firmly in my head, let’s continue.

Because this is only one of two large writing projects I’m working on at the moment. As I’ve mentioned before, I stress write. And my current stress writing manuscript is well past the first draft but not quite to a finished second draft yet. Let’s just say that the last two thirds of the story is being entirely rewritten. Far from an overcomplicated historical fantasy, this one is contemporary YA that focuses on family—the one you’re born with and the ones you can create for yourself—with a healthy dose of romance thrown in for good measure. If my first story is my Titanic, this is one more akin to say, Bring It On (in my dreams, at least).

Both are necessary for my sanity.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Ha—well, let’s just say that I hope it does? Right now, I’m in the thick of both and so it’s hard to tell really. I find with my own writing that it’s necessary to take a step back from it in order to gauge something like this. Mostly, I hope for the best and I keep revising.

Why do I write what I do?

The aforementioned need for sanity is a big part of it. This does not mean, however, that I’m the type who works out her neuroses on the page. I write fiction and I find that the world of make-believe is much easier to tackle when it’s not tied down to my own special blend of emotional issues.

At this juncture in my writing, I guess the question I’ve been thinking about a lot more is why I’m attempting to write YA fiction rather than why I’m working on a specific story. The answer is a complicated mix (yes, I’ve used that word twice now—it’s not by accident) of factors. Clearly, I edit books for young readers for a living, so literature for kids and adolescents is something near and dear to my heart. And while I love, love, love writing picture book stories, right at this moment, I’m feeling really captivated by YA and how, for this age group, so much is in flux and changing—or about to change—in momentous ways. And so, this is where I am right now.

How does my writing process work?

Okay, at the risk of continuing to make myself sound like a madwoman, it works in giant bursts of writing energy—often in the middle of the night when I’m in the midst of a first draft of a story—during which I am hyper-focused on what I’m writing.

Then there’s a cooling down period. It’s almost like having a crush. At first, it’s hard to think about anything else, but then you get to know your crush better, and either you lose your initial fervor, or your attraction grows into something deeper. I try to take advantage of that first rush of the crush while it’s with me and get as much done as I possibly can during this little honeymoon period.

Then it’s on to the harder work of figuring out of this crush is worth my while, or is just a flash in the pan. My laptop is filled with discarded ideas that have proven themselves unable to keep my attention—whose dashing concepts or brawny shoulders of plot briefly captured my eye, but whose long-term relationship prospects were dim.

The two projects I’m working on right now are at different stages in their post-crush lives, but both are firmly in that phase. For my thesis, I feel like the story and I have hit a few bumps and we maybe need to take some time away from each other before we recommit. For my contemporary YA story, it’s still a newer relationship, so while there are kinks to work out, it’s not hitting the skids or heading into therapy or anything. Yet.

I’m not taking this metaphor too far, am I?

The long and the short of it is: I write in bursts, and when they burst come, I write a lot and whenever I can possibly fit it in. If that means at 2:30 in the morning, so be it. I keep my laptop by my bedside, just in case (no long hand writing for me, thank you very much). For many years, I tried to keep myself on the straight and narrow when it came to writing time, but I’ve learned to just go with what works. Often this means I am tired. But it’s worth it in the end.

So, there you have it. I hope Sabrina’s not on the verge of disowning me as a friend and fellow writer because of these answers to her questions, and I’m looking forward to reading some of the other responses, which you can check out here:

Michael Anthony, A Veteran’s Perspective…

Kyra Renee Clay, Traveling to Me: The Road towards living (a Dream)

Alexis Marie Chute, Alexis Marie Writes

 

Book Spine Poetry

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This is just what I came up with after a quick perusal of our bookshelves. If I’d had time to head to the library, this could have been a true masterpiece.

Too much work? Check. Needing a little procrastination break? Check, again. Wondering what to do to celebrate the looming National Poetry Month? Well, not as much, really (you can’t win them all). But armed with two out of three,  when I saw this post on the School Library Journal website the other day, I knew my path was clear.

I could have gone an actually poetic route here. I could have gone for something more philosophical. Instead, I opted for the silly and borderline gross route. What can I say? Anything that can work Harry Allard and James Marshall’s The Stupids Die into everyday life is a good thing in my book (and if you have not read this book, please run out and do so).

Want to procrastinate and come up with your own book spine poetry to share—or just want to peruse others’ works of genius? Then pop by here!

Which Online Quiz Should You Really Take?

The Empire Strikes Back

Do I belong among the clouds? Only if Lando Calrissian wears that cape for me.

Long ago—in a whole other century, in fact—I remember pouncing on quizzes in magazines like Seventeen. Want to know if the boy you like is crushing on you, too? Perhaps even what kind of prom dress you should buy based on your favorite movies? There was a quiz for it. And I could never resist.

The urge to fill in a few blanks and have a simple quiz spit back something fun…or funny…or even mildly disturbing about you has its charms. Now, however, you don’t need to flip through the pages of a teenybopper magazine in hopes of finding these little gems. For lo, seemingly every day of my life, someone posts the results of some Buzzfeed quiz or other on Facebook. And I’m sorry to say that, like a moth to the flame, I’m helpless to follow the links, click away, and (apparently!) rediscover who I really am.

So, here are the things I’ve learned about myself through online quizzes in the last couple of weeks (yes, it’s embarrassing that I’ve taken quite so many):

What kind of dog are you? Great Dane. This is apparently has nothing to do the size of my body, but rather the size of my character (phew).

What city should you actually live in? London. Of course, I could have told Buzzfeed that without taking the quiz.

What fictional city should you actually live in? Yet another “duh!” I’d be hanging out in the clouds on Bespin with Lando Calrissian. I only hope I don’t have to make a deal with the Empire to secure the city’s safety!

What Harry Potter character are you? To my great dismay, I didn’t get either Hermione Granger or Neville Longbottom (love you, Neville), but Harry himself. Here’s hoping this is because of my deep and abiding courageousness and not because of some impending need-to-sacrifice-myself-to-save-the-world type scenario.

What ‘80s pop hit are you? Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.” I-I-I-I-IIIII will always love Whi-tnee-ee-ee-eee-eee-ee-eee-eey. Really. After her tragic death, I couldn’t listen to her music without getting sad for a long time. Plus, I have some fond karaoke memories of this particular song, so it’s all good.

What career should you actually have? Professor, it seems. I did love teaching during my brief stint at it—though I did wonder if editor or writer were even an option on this one. They’re just not the kind of jobs most people think about. Or maybe they were there and I didn’t get them? Are the internet gods trying to tell me something?

Which Jane Austen Character Are You? This one gave you the choice of discovering which male or female character you are, so naturally I took it twice. I got Elizabeth Bennett and Charles Bingley, though clearly this can’t be a scientifically sound test, or these two would not exist in the same plane (despite their appreciation for each other).

So, there you have it: my entire character spelled out in just a few short quizzes. What did our procrastinating souls do before the internet? Oh yeah—Seventeen!

 

Book Love: Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation

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A small gem of a paperback, only a little bigger than the glasses used to read it.

Yesterday, a package from Believer magazine arrived in the mail. It was much smaller than the usual magazine, so naturally, it was intriguing. Inside, was a pocket-sized gem of a paperback book: Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation. There had been an interview in the actual magazine itself, but here was a long version—in a perfect trim size—just waiting for me to devour.

It goes without saying—even though I talk about it a lot—that I greatly admire Judy Blume. Her books were always a treat to read, but in particular, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was a touchstone for my younger reading self. She’s been controversial, she’s been banned, she’s been beloved. Throughout it all, she’s been honest and she’s taken her audience very seriously—and that counts for a lot in my book.

When it comes to Lena Dunham, I know only what I’ve read in interviews. I’ve never once seen the show Girls, but have wondered for some time if there’s something that I’m missing by simply not having the right cable television package to watch it. I’m more convinced than ever after reading this lengthy interview.

One is young and just arrived at her icon status, one has had time to adjust to it and live in her own skin as a writer. One has pushed the limits with her words, and the other sometimes does it with the baring of her own body. But both of these women have dared to go where no one expected them to—probably where a lot of people didn’t even want them to. They’re utterly brave in their creativity. So it makes sense that they sat down together—even decided to be friends afterward!—and talked about their process, their work, their families, and their lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to create—what the rewards and the drawbacks are, and why we as people are so drawn to the very act of creation. In the end, I think we all want to be brave as Judy Blume and Lena Dunham in what we create—whether we’re painting or writing or making music or dancing or acting or…whatever. We want to boldly go where no one has before—to tell a story in whichever mode of telling we choose that’s somehow both a part of ourselves and a part of something bigger than ourselves.

So, this interview—this brief look into the minds of these two very writers—struck a chord for me. If you have a chance, take an hour (or less, really) to read it. Heck, you can even borrow my copy. It’s a little dog-eared, but who minds that among friends?

Shocked—Shocked!—to Find Out that Writers Make No Money

Recently, Digital Book World published statistics on how much writers make. Turns out, it’s not very much. As a writer myself, and someone who works in the publishing industry, this was about as stunning as Captain Renault’s revelation that there was gambling at Rick’s Café.

Looking at the graph below, it’s particularly surprising, of course, that “aspiring” writers don’t make any money at all. Oh, Digital Book World, say it isn’t so!

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While it’s interesting to look at numbers like this sometimes—and the breakdown of what kind of publishing provides what kinds of rewards—it’s not terribly informative. Because as both the graph and life experience can tell you, writing is not a lucrative calling.  And writing for young people, in particular, is not known for its millionaire-making.  With very few exceptions, anyone who writes—or creates visual art, or music, or…well, I could go on endlessly—can tell you that it’s not the salary that drives her.

This is not to say that it’s not a very nice thing indeed to get paid for your writing—it goes without saying that it is. It’s frustrating, even infuriating, sometimes not to get paid a lot (or even at all) for your work.

But—and here comes The Bachelor reference again (it is still Juan-uary, after all)—creative pursuits are all about the journey. And part of being there for the Right Reasons is knowing that you’re almost certainly not going to get rich doing it. Though, again, a little something here and there certainly helps.

So, thank you, Digital Book World, for providing this graphic. It’s very colorful and pleasing to look at, and give us aspiring writers out there something to actually, well, aspire to. That teeny little slice of green up there is certainly calling my name!

Literary Lists…or, How Do You Know What Will Make Me a Better Person?

A fresh page upon which to create today’s list! I’ve been with this planner longer than I’ve been with my husband.

It is an undeniable fact: I am a list-maker. From what to buy at the supermarket, to what to pack for a trip, to what I need to do each and every day, there is a list. Indeed, I’ve had the same Franklin Planner since approximately 1997, for which I dutifully buy new, blank pages upon which to list-make at the start of every year.

For me, this is a sanity preservation device: I know my own tendency to become wildly stressed out if I don’t feel like I’m on top of things, so I try to keep on top of things. I am not a procrastinator—doing stuff at the last minute tends to eat away at my mental well-being. So, each day, I make a list of the things I need to accomplish. On paper, in pencil, with a system to mark off what I’ve done, what’s only partially done, and what’s going to have to wait a day or two. If this sounds like madness to you, fair enough. But it works for me and they’re not created for the benefit of anybody but me.

The long and the short of it is, I understand the urge to list things off and make sense of them.

What I guess I don’t understand is making lists of books based on things like Flavorwire’s “50 Novels Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person.”  Okay, so there are some good books on there, and there are worse ways to spend your day than putting together a list of good books. And, okay, so there’s research out in the ether that says that reading novels is good for you—can even make you more empathetic. As a life-long reader, I didn’t really need any scientific research to tell me this, of course. I know it from experience. I also know from experience that one woman’s life-changing read is another terrible bore. Because what changes you is as individual and subjective as being you is. I often joke, but truly believe, that while some people turn to religious texts in their times of need, I turn to Middlemarch. For me, that’s what’s life affirming and life changing. So to create a list of books that will help someone else be a better person seems like an exercise in futility.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like a good book list. I like Goodreads for that very reason—readers putting together lists of books that they’ve enjoyed, usually by some sort of categorization. But creating such a list—one that says, hey these were great books that I liked!—and saying hey, these books will make you a better person, are two very different things. By all means, share what you love with me. Maybe I’ll love it, too. But don’t presume to dictate what might do something as enormous as improve a person on a fundamental level. Because my George Elliot might be your Jonathan Franzen. Maybe Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books opened up a world of possibilities for you as a kid. Who knows?

On my desk at all times is a little bookmark that contains a snippet of text from Little Women in a glass tube. I keep this on whatever desk I use as an editor—and it’s traveled with me from one location to another for many years—as a physical reminder as I read submissions and edit stories that everyone has their own special, life-changing books. Little Women turned me into a serious reader. Any other book might do that for any other reader.

So, at the risk of sounding cranky—and oh, I fear that I do sound cranky!—telling people that this book or that one will make them better or change their lives (and why it will) is kind of hooey. Tell me what you love, but then let me sit back and discover what I can in a book—and let it change me or not as it will!

On MFA Residency and “Juan-uary”

Juan Pablo Galavix

ABC/Craig Sjodin

Do you watch The Bachelor? No? Whether you do or don’t, if you’re tuned into any kind of pop culture or own any kind of electronic device, you must have keyed into the fact that ABC has dubbed this month “Juan-uary” in honor of the current (hunky, deliciously clueless) Bachelor, Juan Pablo Galavis.

My husband and I love this show. So much so that I won’t even deign to call it a guilty pleasure—it’s just a plain, old pleasure. Last week’s season premiere did not disappoint. There was the usual round of craziness: The lady who shows up pretending to be pregnant. The other lady who brings her massage table with her, just because. The folks who give new meaning to the phrase “odd jobs” (I’m looking at you, “Free Spirit,” “Dog Lover,” and “Former NBA Dancer”). But it also was crazy on a whole different level: as in he gave the coveted First Impression Rose to someone who could barely tolerate his presence, and then during the rose ceremony, someone actually mistook Kat for Kylie—you know, the kind of mistake anyone could make—and two ladies came for a single rose.

Did I mention that I love this show?

Are you beginning to wonder if I’m ever going to get to the part where The Bachelor is like my recent MFA residency?

Well, wait no longer, because here it is: Like the beginning of Juan Pablo’s “journey,” my nine days at residency at Lesley were a little bumpy. The first day was cancelled because we got over a foot of snow. On the second day, I apparently dropped my wallet in the parking lot of a shopping center near campus. No one turned it in. This resulted in hour upon tedious hour of organizing bank, credit card, license renewal—you name it—all in the midst of seminars, workshops, readings, and time with friends I only get to see twice a year.

Then on Friday, it snowed again and I slipped on a patch of ice and hurt my knee. Nothing’s broken—only woefully swollen and sore. And so I missed the last day of residency.

The thing is, this was my last full residency, the one that kicks off my thesis semester in a program that has meant a lot to me. But, just like the proverbial path to true love (you had to know I’d bring it back to The Bachelor somehow), the course of this residency just didn’t run as smoothly as I’d hoped.

Even so, it was—as always—wonderful to see friends and faculty, to talk about writing with people who are also on this crazy journey, to think about craft and dive a little deeper into a story that’s come so far—and still has so very far to go.

So, Juan-uary didn’t begin quite as I thought it would. Big deal, right? I’m still on this wild MFA program ride for The Right Reasons. And as any true fan of The Bachelor will tell you, that’s all that really matters.

The Bend in the Road

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“Anne had a long meditation at her window that night. Joy and regret struggled together in her heart. She had come at last . . . suddenly and unexpectedly . . . to the bend in the road. . . . but Anne realized as well that when she rounded that curve she must leave many sweet things behind . . . all the little simple duties and interests which had grown so dear to her in the last two years and which she had glorified into beauty and delight by the enthusiasm she had put into them.” —L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

It is not unusual for Anne Shirley to come to my mind unbidden, but today, this particular passage is first and foremost in my mind. Because I’ve come to a bend in the road—one that I hoped for and need, but one that also is bittersweet as all such things must be.

After nearly seven years—long enough so that my daughter has no recollection of me working anywhere but there—yesterday was my last day in the office at a publishing company that I love dearly. I’m not leaving completely, of course. I’m extremely pleased to say that I’ll still be acquiring and editing books with them. But now it will be as a freelance editor working from a quiet corner in my own home.

There are many wonderful things about this, cutting the endless commute out of my world not  the least of them. But it also gives me time to deal with schoolwork, time with family, and time to write in a more meaningful way—all while still working with authors and illustrators and on books that mean an awful lot to me.

On the flip side, I will miss the colleagues and friends in the office who have played such a huge role in my world week after week, year after year. And that’s a pretty gigantic flip side.

In the end, though, I welcome this bend in the road, and if I face the uncertainty of what lies beyond with a little bit of wistfulness, I also face it with great hope. Because there’s beauty and delight in what’s already been—and perhaps still more in what’s to come.

 

Stress Writing

The last few weeks have been among the most exhausting and stressful that I’ve encountered in many, many years for reasons far too mundane (and personal) to get into. Suffice to say, I’ve been feeling flat out.

When stress hits, some people turn to food. Some take to alcohol. Others turn to caffeine, exercise, bad TV—you name it. But I’ve got dietary restrictions that limit what I can eat and drink, and caffeine and my stomach are not the best of friends. So what’s a gal to do when stress hits hard?

Certainly, I’ve watched my share of good (and bad) television of late in an effort to take it down a notch or two. But I’ve also taken to writing to blow off some steam. Not writing of the useful MFA program variety, or even of the lucrative freelancing variety. Instead, I’m writing fluff. And it turns out that it’s a wonderfully fun to write fluff—where there’s no pressure, no deadlines, no expectations. Nothing at all but me sitting by the fire with my laptop and churning out whatever I feel like writing. And what I feel like writing is pure fluff.

This would have distressed me to no end mere months ago. I would have further stressed myself out by worrying that I wasn’t expending creative energy in more serious ways. Now…well…who honestly cares? It’s fun, it’s harmless, and it’s gotten me through the rather tedious month of November and beyond. I wrote 51 pages of a new story last week, just because I was on edge.

So, while I cannot actually eat the marshmallow-y goodness known as Fluff, it turns out I can churn out fluff on the page at breakneck speed when my psyche needs it.

Now if only I could have some caffeine….

 

 

Nonfiction Picture Books at The Crooked Little Cottage

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Christopher Denise’s gorgeous portrait of Mr. Pig and his Crooked Little Cottage.

Do you have a burning desire to know what my favorite picture was a kid? Alternatively, would you to hear a nonfiction editor’s picks for favorite contemporary nonfiction picture books? Well, Mr. Pig (and one of his cohorts, Jamie Michalak) over at The Crooked Little Cottage is featuring all of the above in a feature called Loved to Pieces today. Check it out—and then do yourself a giant favor and stick around to enjoy all fun this blog (and Mr. Pig) have to offer!