After the Election: On Widening the Circle of Light

This morning, I am angry. Angry, frustrated, sick, with an outright fire burning inside of me. This morning I have to explain to my daughter that the bright hopes for the future she went to sleep with last night are now gone. I try not to write about politics—this a blog about children’s books after all—but the politics are personal now. Because how do I explain that the person who will take over the reigns of this country in January is someone I would not allow her in the same room with? Someone who talks gleefully about deporting her friends who came here from other countries, and mocks the ones with disabilities. Someone who thinks our LGBTQ friends and family should be stripped of their rights. Someone who believes that anyone who doesn’t share his skin color or a single religion is beneath him. Someone who thinks she and I are both lesser because we are female.

For her sake, I will bury the fire inside me for a little while. I’ll be calm and talk to her about the election results so as not to panic her. And I’ll tell her—and genuinely believe—that the lessons I’ve always gleaned from my personal Good Book, Middlemarch, are truer and more necessary now than ever. Like that book’s estimable Miss Brooke, we will work to widen the circle of light. We’ll strive to be among the many people who work to make the world better by living our lives faithfully. And we’ll look out for the people around us—the ones we know and the ones we’ve never met before.

Then today and in the days that follow, I’ll work to keep editing and writing books for young people. I’ll know deep in my heart that creating literature for kids will be its own means of widening that circle of light. And I’ll take comfort in that.

But I don’t want to lose the fire and the anger and the frustration I feel right now. I don’t want to grow complacent and have the outrageous become the everyday. Months ago, when my daughter asked if we’d move to Canada if the election didn’t go the way we’d hoped, I told her calmly but firmly that no, we’d stay and we’d fight for what’s right.

Here’s hoping that this is something we can all that do in our own ways, large and small. The next few years are going to be a bumpy ride. But I’ve got my seatbelt fastened. And I’m ready to face whatever comes.

Open to the Magic (in Whatever Form it Comes)

SAM_3568Periodically, as we traveled around Iceland in July, we’d see small houses—elf doors—built up against the side of slabs of volcanic rock. They’re built for the elves—the huldofolk or hidden people—who live in the rocks. Because in Iceland, even if you don’t believe in elves and fairies outright, you likely don’t want to take the chance that they’re hidden somewhere close by—and that you haven’t treated them with your very best manners.

I was mesmerized by these little elf doors and by the idea that the huldofolk might be hiding in plain sight, if only you had the gift to see them. We even went on an elf tour to see some of the hidden folk’s favorite hangouts while we were there. When our tour guide told us that some people could actually hear the elves at one large rock, my kiddo and I immediately put our ears to it to see if we could hear anything. Because you never know. As my husband put it, we had no idea if we could see or hear the elves yet. And who doesn’t want to be open to the possibility of magic?

As an editor and a writer, you have to be at least a little open to letting magic in. There is something, call it what you will, about reading a pile of submissions and finding one that sings to you or persistently putting words down on the page in the hopes that these might be ones that work. And as a parent there’s a certain level of magic built in, too. We play and imagine, paint and create, write and laugh.

But it’s too easy to set aside the magic and get mired down in the more mundane details of life. I’ve tried my best to embrace the hygge this winter, but it hasn’t always been easy. There are still deadlines and stress, clutter and chaos, grief and loss no matter how many candles I light at night. The feeling of coziness can slip away all too easily.

Last night, I worried that it was slipping away again. With a kid getting over a stomach bug, our New Year’s Eve plans went out the window and we were home together on the sofa as if it was just any old night—which it was, after all. Then we made some decisions. I picked up some fancy cheese to munch on. We watched a live stream of Reykjavik’s fireworks and celebrated the New Year on Iceland time before our tired kiddo went to sleep. My husband indulged my love of the X-Files by watching some of the first season with me for the first time as we drank mulled mead and ate tarts filled with apple butter I’d made myself. It was a nice night.

Magic can seep into life in so many different ways. For me, it can be a book that sets me on fire, or watching the new Star Wars movie on opening night with a couple of hundred of other crazy fans. It can be my kiddo giving me two albums she hates for Christmas (Frank Turner and One Direction) because she knows they’ll make me happy. It can be a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea on the first morning of 2016.

What matters isn’t when the magic slips away, but the decision to keep trying to let it in, in whatever form it takes. So, as my little family welcomes this new year, I’m determined to keep putting my ear to the elf rock—and to try to be open to whatever I might hear within it.

 

Two Years of Scribbling in the Garret

May Alcott's original illustration of Jo scribbling away at her writing,  from the two-volume publication of LIttle Women.
May Alcott’s original illustration of Jo scribbling away at her writing, from the two-volume publication of LIttle Women.

I realized this blog has been in existence for two years today almost by accident. If a date’s not written on my planner—and is not, say, my husband or child’s birthday—I tend to forget it. And a blog anniversary (I can’t really use the word “blogiversary” with a straight face, even when I’m typing) isn’t the kind of thing you really mark on your calendar. So, the first anniversary went entirely forgotten.

But, it is, in fact, two years to the day since this little experiment in blogging began, and to honor the occasion, I’d like—once again—to have a little celebration of Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and Jo March. Only this time, I’ve got lovely pictures.

The very gorgeous cover of an 1880 edition of Little Women (both volumes together at last!).
The very gorgeous cover of an 1880 edition of Little Women (both volumes together at last!).

Harvard’s Houghton Library is a veritable treasure trove of intriguing literary stuff. In this case, it’s illustrations from the original two-volume publication of Little Women, illustrated by her sister May Alcott. I wondered what May must have been thinking as she illustrated these two volumes and found the fictionalized version of herself—the artist sister—therein. Was she hurt by Louisa’s portrayal of Amy? Offended that her sister made herself the heroine of the story? Grateful that in the end this same writer-sister fixed her up with Laurie (because who wouldn’t be, really)?

Oh, Laurie, couldn't you see you belonged with me and not Amy?
Oh, Laurie, couldn’t you see you belonged with me and not Amy?

Or was she able to celebrate her sister’s literary achievement just as we still celebrate it today? In my spare time (ha!), I’m going to do some research and try to find out. But for now, enjoy the illustrations, and thanks for being a part of what’s now an ongoing blog experiment!

1868_LittleWomen_byLMAlcott_RobertsBros

When it Comes to Revising, Which Way Should I Go?

Lately, I’ve been channeling Dorothy Gale in the unfortunate area of general confusion about how to proceed with my writing. (If only I’d started channeling Judy Garland in the area of singing. If only.)

I’m at the point where I have first, even second, drafts of more than one novel manuscript. They all need work. Like a lot of work. And revising is never a hardship for me—I’m an editor, after all. I like editing. and trying to find solutions to story problems. So what’s the hang up?

For a long spell this fall, there was a sizable hang up indeed—that of deciding upon what to spend my sadly few writing hours. Do I keep pushing forward with the historical fantasy story that was my thesis in Lesley’s MFA program? Do I dive whole-hog into one of two contemporary YA stories instead? It’s nice, of course, to be in the position where I have multiple drafts of multiple stories.

But which way do I go?

The siren song of first one, then another, would call me. And I’d answer each call. Briefly. Always very briefly. It look a while to figure out that there’s a way I could use this to my advantage. Which is what I hope I’m now doing. So I have two stories that I’m revising—one much more complex than the other. I give time to both and then take breaks from both—it’s turned into a giant switch-up.

There’s clearly going to have to come a time when, like Odysseus, I lash myself to the mast and force myself to listen to the siren song of one of these stories—and do my best to sail right past it and stay on course with the other.

But for now, I’m doing what makes most sense—and keeps me sane and writing. Even if, alas, not singing like Judy Garland.

 

Have a Magical Day!

Sure, Cinderella's castle isn't really covered in glowing icicles. But it sure does look pretty.
Sure, Cinderella’s castle isn’t really covered in glowing icicles. But it sure does look pretty.

Disney World is one of those places that you either love or hate. I definitely fall into the love category. Having just returned from a trip there—with hours upon hours spent on rides, watching shows, meeting characters (Chip and Dale rock), and generally having a wonderful time with my extended family, I have some insight into the Disney experience. I also gained some unexpected insight—and perspective—on my own writing. Specifically:

Sometimes it’s good to turn the laptop off and leave it at home. Rid yourself of any possibility of writing or revising and let your brain just rest. I am not good at this. As a slightly compulsive person who’s also a working mother, finding time to write isn’t always easy. So I force myself to work after work and on weekends. I make myself sit at the computer and put words onto the page. This can be a good thing. It can also be damaging when it leads to no rest and no playtime. A gal needs a break every now and then.

There’s no such thing as “real” magic. I know this as a sophisticated adult-type person who’s view of the world is firmly grounded in reality. But magic is so much fun, even if it isn’t real. The magic at Disney World is so seamlessly created that it almost feels real at times. And even when it doesn’t—even when you know the snow on Main Street USA isn’t the real thing because chance snow squalls don’t happen in Orlando—it’s still pretty darn awesome. The careful orchestration doesn’t lessen the greatness. Instead, it adds to my marveling at it. Someone (or more likely a large team of someones) crafted every last moment of the Disney World experience. It’s world-building of the highest order. Magic isn’t real—it’s created. Writers create magic in the same way, and it’s nice to be reminded of that now and again.

Embracing one’s lack of cynicism is a good and healthy thing. I am not a cynical person. I hope never to be one. Sitting on a Disney shuttle bus surrounded by happily chatting families from all around the country—whose kids are sporting Elsa dresses and whose dads are wearing mouse ears—it’s like a breath of fresh air wafted through. And on a crowded shuttle bus, that’s saying something.

The world needs more fireworks. And song and dance routines just for the sake of having song and dance routines. And dance parties in which people wearing large, furry character costumes bust a move with you. And folks who without a shred of irony wish you a magical day. Because who doesn’t want to have a magical day?

So, I thank my lucky stars that there is such a place as Walt Disney World and people who have job titles like imagineer and kindly folks who are happy to chat with you about how awesome their vacations are—and how much they hope yours is as well.

Now I’m back to work and life and even some writing and revising. But if you wish me a magical day, I’ll be happy to wish one right back at you.

An Autumn Nor’easter

 

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A magic carpet of wet leaves to walk on.

If this storm had come in December instead of October, we’d be buried in snow right now. Thankfully, it’s not even close to winter yet (at least in my mind) and we’ve just gotten a welcome dose of rain. Not so far from here, trees are down, taking cars and electricity lines with them, and streets are beginning to flood. In my neighborhood—a sheltered little corner of town—the damage consists at this point of some water in the basement, small tree limbs on the ground, and drowned earthworms (R.I.P, little fellas).

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The rain’s come down fast and furious, and the storm drains are already past capacity.

So, my kiddo and I walked to school today as we always do, thumbing our noses at this briefly weakened segment of the storm and belting out “Singing in the Rain” (sorry, neighbors) as we skipped our way through deep puddles and flooded storm drains. I’ve always liked the rain, and I’m pleased to say that it appears to be an inherited trait.

photo 3
Our Halloween decorations took a hit, and some little branches are down. There are candles at the ready, though, in case the power goes out, and worse fates than working by candlelight..

But now I’m hunkered down at my desk, hoping to do a little writing as the wind whirls around my little yellow house and the guinea pig snoozes, blissfully unaware of that her squirrel and rabbit cousins are outside braving the elements. The kettle’s doing its business in the kitchen with a mug of hot tea just moments away—and like Gene Kelly, right now I have a smile on my face.

What I’ve Learned from Writing “Dancing with the Stars” Fanfiction

ABC created the show, now I’m creating the fanfiction (image via ABC).

 

It had never occurred to me to write fanfiction until my kiddo requested (or what might more accurately be described as begged and pleaded with) me to do so. I’m now past the halfway point of my “journey” in DWTS fanfiction—embarking on chapter seven, “the most memorable year of your life” week—and it’s been an eye-opening experience in some ways. Because as crazy as it sounds (and I do acknowledge that it does sound a little crazy), I’ve learned a lot about writing from this exercise.

Writing for your audience: I often read interviews with authors who say things like, “I just write the story I need to write. I don’t think about the audience, age range, etc.” And okay, sure. That’s good as far as it goes, but sometimes it doesn’t go too far. When you’re writing for young kids, you have to meet them where they’re at to a certain point, and be aware of what they’re emotionally and developmentally ready for. The kinds of issues you might be facing with family and friends when you’re in the first grade can be vastly different from those you face in the fourth, even though the actual ages involved aren’t that far apart from each other. So it’s been good for me to have to write not just for a specific audience, but for an audience of one—whose tastes and experiences I know very well indeed and whose interest it’s been a joy to engage.

World building: Writing this kind of fanfiction is its own special brand of fantasy—it’s far outside the realm of what would be possible in my kiddo’s world and in its own way, has some of the elements you’d expect to find in  young fantasy: being chosen for a quest, being able to do something you never thought you possibly could. It also has a specific world within which I have to operate as I’m writing or else the story won’t make sense or even work on a very basic level.

Skipping the romance: I am a romantic (with both a capital and lower case R) at heart, and I tend to write stories that have at least some kind of romance involved. It’s been interesting to write something that can’t have anything romantic involved—the main characters and dancing partners, after all, are an elementary school-aged girl and a grown man (Val—it’ll always be Val for my kiddo). So, there’s a friendship and a trust between the two main characters but that’s all. It might sound so obvious that it should have occurred to me before this, but writing a story without a romantic element is pretty much the same as writing one that has that element. It’s about the relationships, no matter what form they come in.

Even without these lessons learned (lessons which I certainly didn’t anticipate), I’ve been gladly taking up my laptop to write this rather bonkers little chapter book for my biggest fan and best reader. She loves it, I love creating it for her—it’s a win-win. Now I just have to get it all written. The new season of DWTS starts soon, and I’ve got a fictional Mirror Ball Trophy to hand out before it does!

Reptilians, Fantasy, and a Little Bit of X-Files

Fox Mulder, pondering aliens. (Or, really, just an excuse to post a dreamy picture of a young David Duchovny on my blog).

Did you know that approximately 4% of the U.S. population believes that the government (nay, possibly even the world) is being slowly taken over by Reptilians? I admit that I did not—and that my recent discovery was accompanied by one part dismay and one part (4%?) pure joy.

I am no Fox Mulder—I have no urge to believe this or any other weird theory, conspiracy or otherwise. But I’ve always been fascinated by people who do believe it. Once, many years ago, a friend and I went to a talk by a UFO-ologist at the Orient Heights Branch Library in East Boston. The idea of this talk being given at this location was, frankly, too much to pass up. Plus, I’d recently discovered my own love fantasy and sci-fi. This was a win-win situation.

It was also a completely surreal experience. Here I was, back in land of my youth—where, as far as I knew, no one had been harboring longing thoughts about that the aliens were coming. (Though maybe 4% of them secretly were?)

The gentleman who spoke that day described himself as a skeptic and a debunker, but he was clearly more than that. To debunk the false reports of UFOs and aliens, you have to believe that real ones exist. And most of the people not only believed it, but a number of them had experiences with UFOs and aliens that they shared. It was like being at a support group for folks overcoming alien encounters of one variety or another—a safe space in which to talk about what they’d seen or what had happened to them.

Today, of course, you don’t need to huddle in the basement of a tiny branch library in East Boston to find like-minded people—you have only to type the right words into Google and a community exists for you, right there on your computer screen.

This is a strange and truly wonderful world.

A world in which 4% of Americans believe in Reptilians.

While I do not share this belief (or that of ghosts, fairies, demons, Nessie…the list goes on), I do love stories about them. I love the idea that something strange exists just beyond what we can see and experience, even if the reality of it falls short personally. I even greatly appreciate that for many people this isn’t just an idea but a belief that’s real and part of the fabric of life. For me, though, it’s expressed through story—through what I write and what I read and what I watch.

So where does the line get drawn between the fantasy writer, the skeptical UFO-ologist, the person who doesn’t rule out the possibility that ghosts linger among us, and the person who fervently believes that Queen Elizabeth enters her room in Buckingham Palace each night and peels away her human skin? This is not a question I can even attempt to answer. But I do feel like people crave this connection to something beyond them (in whatever form that takes) and always will.

The truth is out there—all kinds of truths, really—and thankfully fiction helps me discover it.

Well, Hello There

A lot feels like it’s happened since I last posted here—perhaps because it has. Yet another inane national conversation about the general merits of reading YA has come and (thankfully mostly) gone. The school year ended for the rest of my small family. The Supreme Court has made some questionable decisions (don’t get me started). Three fingers on my left hand decided to up and stop doing useful things like feeling what I touch and bending. And with the help of medication and physical therapy, they’re very slowly starting to work again.

Then there was my last ever residency, at the end of which I graduated—at long last—from Lesley’s MFA program.

Really, that’s a lot in a few short weeks. Immediately after graduation, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I won’t be at the next residency in January, and neither will the many friends who graduated alongside me and who’ve returned to their homes in other, far-flung places. But once that time of grieving for what’s past was over, I mostly feel—with the exception of my fingers, which are still kind of numb—kind of…exhausted.

Not in a bad way, though. More in a taking stock way. I’m reading through the story that made up my thesis (as well as most of my time at Lesley) and slowly rebuilding the opening chapters. Because I know things now that I didn’t before about the story, and the beginning just doesn’t work anymore. And it’s good to be in place where I can realize that—and begin to see the forest for the trees (and maybe vice versa, too).

So, onward. To new revisions, new stories, new books to read, and new experiences. Maybe even a blog post or two every now and again. I’m crazy like that.

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 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