“Stay on target, stay on target.” Or, How I Lost My Focus

Last week, I was patting myself on the back for doggedly staying on track and revising. This week, I have strayed from the revision path in a fiery ball of Darth Vader’s fury.

Frailty, thy name is writer.

It’s not that I didn’t want to stay on target and keep revising. It’s just that this idea had been percolating in my head. An idea that I really liked, in fact. An idea for a light, airy bit of a YA novel that’s as much fun as writing picture book texts.

I’ve written nine chapters in four days.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker, attempting to stay focused with a Yoda on his back.

This is clearly a blessing as well as a curse—and really, who am I to complain that I’m working on something that I’m really enjoying?

And to bring it all back to Star Wars (because in the end, everything always does come back to Star Wars) it’s also left me wondering if I’m like Luke Skywalker relying on the Force to guide him to the weak spot on the Death Star—or like Luke later in the Empire Strikes Back when Yoda accuses him of abandoning his Jedi training.

My husband thinks it’s the former, and that the Force (or the muse, as he calls it) is simply flowing through me, and I should go with it. It’s hard, though, to shake the feeling that I’ve eaten a whole box of Popsicles and have no room left for a real dinner. Or, to bring it back to Star Wars again, that I’ve just abandoned a higher calling to go off and save Han and Leia.

But it’s Han and Leia! How can I not go off to save them?

Am I just being tempted by the dark side?

How does one stay focused?

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 200th Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!

The cover of Harvard University Press's Annotated Edition of Pride and Prejudice.
Harvard University Press’s Annotated Edition of Pride and Prejudice–which I want with every ounce of my being.

“What delight! What felicity!”

Today is Pride and Prejudice’s 200th anniversary. To celebrate, the BBC is apparently going to throw a ball. Not just any old ball—they’re recreating the Netherfield ball (www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/bbc-to-recreate-netherfield-ball-for-200th-anniversary-of-pride-and-prejudice-8453439.html).

Will Nichols make enough white soup in time? Will Lydia behave abominably? Will Wickham do the honourable thing and simply stay home? And will Mrs. Bennett talk endlessly (and rather loudly) about getting rich husbands for her daughters, while Mary tries her best to monopolize the pianoforte to display her accomplishments?

We’ll have to wait until the spring to find out, I’m afraid. I only hope that BBC America or PBS does us all the favor of showing this delectable morsel, or I’ll feel as bereft as Kitty if she had no partner at the dance.

In the meantime, this anniversary provides the perfect excuse to reread an old friend—one that I discovered in seventh grade (if that gives you any indication of what a book nerd I was, even in middle school) and that has provided an abundance of joy since then.

In my house, our thoughts will be at Pemberley tonight. We’ll have hazelnut scones with clotted cream to celebrate (no white soup, alas), while we try—in vain!—to control our feelings about this book.

 

Picture Book Stories–in 1,000 Words or Less

on the shelf
Sure, they come in all shapes and sizes–but the norm for today’s picture book texts if 1,000 words or less.

Here is a question that has been plaguing me: why do picture book texts have to be  less than a 1,000 words? It’s not that some stories can’t be told in less than a 1,000 words—many can, and being able to create story and character in so few words is an art unto itself.  But why does the publishing world feel so strongly about this length (and, ideally, even shorter lengths)? Shouldn’t the word count fit the story?

I ask not just as someone trying to write picture books. I ask as an editor who’s part of this publishing world and as a mother of a kiddo who’s just old enough to read on her own, but still wanting me to read longer stories to her—and still wanting stories with pictures. So, longer picture books would be, for us, a boon. Sure, there are early readers. But having read an awful lot of them this year, the stories aren’t as rich and the illustrations aren’t of the same quality that you find in a good picture book.

So, that brings me back to the idea of a longer picture book (or storybooks).

As someone who grew up loving DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, and who has a keen appreciation of books like Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes’s Library Lion, I want more. And I admit, I want to have the freedom to write more…sometimes.

Should the word count fit the story? Or the other way around?

Sometimes Even Grown-ups Need a Time-out

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The view from Bearskin Neck, Rockport.

In our house, we try to not to use time-outs as punishments so much as times to sit for a spell, regain one’s composure, or even think for a moment or two about some bad decision-making. Basically, it’s parental-enforced reflection time.

But hey, why should the little kiddo get all the reflection time? This weekend, it was the parents who took a brief time-out–with a small jaunt to Rockport, MA.

We weren’t gone for long, but we did have a glorious time. Tea was drunk. Jane Austen was read. Hours were spent chatting. No work was done.

 

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The lovely Emerson Inn By-the-Sea.

 

Yes, I do have deadlines for school looming. Yes, I have writing to do, books I actually have to read, and papers to write. I did none of them. This is a rarity in my world, so I reveled in every moment–and now want to share some pictures of our version of a time-out.

 

 

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There’s granite everywhere–they don’t call it Rockport for nothing.
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The view outside the front door of the Emerson.

 

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Obligatory shot of Motif #1.
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Best combination of signs ever (yes, that’s a “no horses” sign up there).

Best of all, with all that rest and relaxation, I got an idea for a new story. See, time-outs really do work.

Child Reader, Adult Author: Talking to Kids Through Story

In the past two days, I’ve read two takes on the creator/audience relationship when it comes to children’s books from two very different sources. The first is from Leonard Marcus’s introduction to Ways of Telling: Fourteen Interviews with the Masters of the Art of the Picture Bookhis book Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book. Marcus describes the picture book not only as a dialogue between words and pictures but also, “a dialogue between generations: between the artists and writers who create the and the children who compose their primary audience.”

The second is an interview with Dav Pilkey on NPR (the complete interview is here).

It was this bit of the article/interview that struck me the most:

 In the new Captain Underpants book, he writes: “If you’re like most kids you’re probably reading this book because some adult wanted you to stop playing video games or watching Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-BoxersTV.” Pilkey says that when he writes for kids, “it’s really an ‘us and them’ type of situation. It’s like me and the kids versus the grown-ups.”

Once I got shook of the bristling-type feeling I got from the “us and them” language Pilkey used, I realized while they’re clearly expressing themselves quite differently, in essence, both Leonard Marcus and Dav Pilkey are saying the same thing. And they got me thinking about the nature of writing for a young audience when you are, inevitably, a grown-up. I’ve always rejected the idea that you need to have children yourself in order to really write for kids. Equally absurd to me is the idea that the people who write for children somehow still are children themselves. Was Maurice Sendak really just an overgrown child a heart? Why would we even want him to be?

Maybe all you really need is to strive to create this dialogue between the grown-up creator and the child. Reading books with my daughter that have sly adult references always get my goat. Picture books—and even early readers, chapter books, and beyond—aren’t really for adults. They’re for and about the young readers.

There are so many ways to write for young children and create a dialogue with young readers. You can do it through loving, comforting stories. And you can do it through telling a really awesome fart joke. My approach to writing is much, much different from Dav Pilkey’s. But I completely appreciate the sense of empowerment kids can get knowing that the author of a favorite book is on their side, writing for just them, parents be damned. It’s why the Captain Underpants books are so well loved. It’s the dialogue every writer for children, in myriad different ways, is trying to create.

And anyway, who doesn’t love a good fart joke?

 

 

 

Jo March—Writing Gal’s Hero

Jo March, Little WomenLong before A Room of One’s Own was a twinkle in Virginia Woolf’s eye, Jo March was escaping upstairs, donning her writing garb, and “scribbling” in the garret. While she inexplicably welcomed the presence of a rat named Scabbers in her writing pursuits, in all other ways, Jo was my hero.

She has had, from the moment I made her acquaintance in Little Women in the fifth grade, a profound influence on me.  While I could appreciate Meg’s yearning to make things beautiful, Beth’s tragically gentle ways, and Amy’s wish to be an artist and marry Laurie, it was Jo who captured my imagination and my heart.

She was strong, brash, smart, and absolutely dedicated to the people she loved. She sold her hair—her one beauty!—to help her parents. She doggedly pursued her dream of becoming a writer. She broke out on her own and tried to find her own path. She dreamed big. And she married an intellectual-type who supported her writing and called her “heart’s dearest” (yes, I even love old Fritz Bhaer).

Jo and her sisters transformed me from a normal fifth grade reader into something much more passionate—an intense lover of literature. Over the years, this love of reading has evolved into a career editing children’s books, and even eventually, to writing them myself.

Alas, I do not have a garret, or indeed any space of my own in my little yellow house in which to do my own scribbling. I write where and when I can. But I do have legions of family and friends to encourage me, a daughter who makes her own books at age six, an intellectual-type husband who supports my writing (though, sadly, he doesn’t ever call me heart’s dearest)—and a rather scruffy guinea pig (no rats in this house, thank you very much) to keep me company as I write.

So, here’s to you, Jo March. And while we’re at it, here’s to Louisa May Alcott, as well. I raise my cup of tea to character and creator—and then will put it down again and get back to revising the lost soul of a picture book manuscript on which I’ve been working.