Let’s (Re)Start at the Very Beginning

Throughout my entire life, I have loved The Sound of Music. I don’t mean that I enjoy it, or appreciate it in some detached way—I seriously love it. So when I sat down to write this post, I fully expected to put a lovely clip of the original movie in it.

Then I saw this.

It’s extremely difficult not to love this dance in an Antwerp train station. Sure, the flash mob thing has been done to death. But there’s a real exuberance here that’s impossible to resist. From the gentleman who rather enthusiastically begins it all, to the people flowing down the staircase, to the dudes in business suits giving it their all, this is a wonderful re-imagining of the original.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to include this song in the first place. I’ve been working on the same draft of the same YA story for a long, long while now. It’s been, at times, exhilarating, exhausting, tedious, and downright wonderful. But now, the time has come to lay this draft to rest and start at the very beginning once again.

I admit, this is a little intimidating.

As I said, it took a long time to get here, and there blood, sweat, and tears have been shed along the way. But the story has evolved since I first began it, and I know now—which I didn’t when I started—much more about these characters and where I want their story to go.

This is not easy work. But it’s where the real guts of the story develop—the devil is in the details, but also in the revision, and I mean that in a good way.

So, on this lovely Friday morning (no snow at last!), I’m ready to enthusiastically throw myself back in and give this revision all that I can.

But I might need to watch that video one more time for inspiration….

How to Do Anything in Four Easy Steps

Step one on a journey to heightened fanciness (and, yes, we do own nail polish called “Fierce N Tangy”).

My kiddo recently had “Author Day” at school, during which the kids all presented books they’ve written and the fruits of their writing journal labors. One of their books had to be All About…something. The kids could pick whatever they wanted to, but then had to explore how to do something in four steps: First, Next, Then, Last.

The topics ran the gamut from “How to Play Football” to “How to Feed a Bunny,” from “How to Watch the Red Sox” to “How to Buy a Boat” (no joke). My kiddo chose “All About Me: How to be Fancy,” an appropriate topic given the level of glamour to which she daily aspires.

But how do you become fancy in four easy steps, you might ask?

FIRST, you paint your nails.

THEN, you wear sparkly clothes.

NEXT, you put a flower in your hair.

LAST, you have a happy attitude.

I admired this particular guide to being her immensely. A few things struck me about this: 1.) That she identified being fancy on the outside isn’t enough. To be like her, you had to have the right attitude. 2.) That she essentially wrote the first grade equivalent of a self-help guide. 3.) That it was so easy for all of these kids to explain parts of their world in four easy steps.

When you think about, a lot of things can be broken down this way. Maybe life would even be a whole lot saner if everyone tried to look at it one step at a time.  As someone who is constantly juggling an uncomfortable level of multi-tasking between home, work, school, I love this idea.

First, I go to work. Then, I stop at the grocery store. Next, I spend (best part of the day) time with my family. Last, I do some school work after my kiddo goes to sleep. As overwhelming as that might sound, it works a whole lot better than, “Oh my god, oh my god, how am I going to get everything done today?”

It can even work while thinking about plot in a seemingly overcomplicated story (one of which I am currently hard at work upon). Distilling one convoluted plot into four small sentences can really make you think hard about what you’re trying to accomplish—and just how convoluted it really is.

So, I’m going to start making a real effort to break down each task, each assignment, each goal into four steps—and really try to take care of each one along the way. Being organized can’t hurt, right?

I’ve heard that having a happy attitude helps, too.

In Praise of Writing Groups

At the moment, I am in two distinct writing groups. One is of quite long standing, one that has only just started up. One group gets together at pubs and restaurant where we spend hours talking about life and writing. One connects over email and Skype, allowing us to talk despite the miles between us. Both met this week.

I love writing group. Not only do I love the amazing and talented ladies in both groups, but I also admire and respect their opinions, and am endlessly grateful for their feedback on my writing. I’m also kind of in awe of their writing. Did I mention that they are talented ladies?

Sangria, tapas, catching up on life, books, gossip, you name it…and then there are the critiques.

The thing is, even aside from getting to spend time with some of my favorite people, I inevitably come away with hoards of ideas about how to revise a given piece of writing. Over the past week, for me that’s meant lots of ideas on how to rework two different picture book manuscripts.

All of which leaves me excited about revisions (did I just say that?)—and eager for next month’s meetings!




Time Out: The Boston Flower Show

Being a deadline driven MFA student-type means that I’m usually hitting the books, the revisions, and the writing pretty hard. But, since all work and no play makes the entire world incredibly drab—and since we’re in the midst of the second snowstorm in two weeks—the Boston Flower Show came at the perfect time.

Our whole little family went, and my trusty sidekick took pictures along with me to help me “make my blog more awesome.”

The gardens there were amazing. One took you from winter to spring in just a few feet. I look at this picture, think about my own crocuses, now under many inches of snow, and sigh just a little.


Another made you feel like you were gazing right into the midst of the “wild” yet wonderfully manicured edge of the forest.


And then there were some geek girl pieces of heaven. A life-sized Hobbit hole…


Complete with stone owl garden deities which I freely admit that I covet.


And a miniature Hobbit hole (all tiny mosses and plants), complete with Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins.


In the end, it was just plain lovely to get a bit of spring in the midst of a seemingly endless winter.


And then it was back to the books, the revisions, and the writing!

Coming to the Dark Side, Where (Sadly) There Are No Cookies

It’s been a bumpy week of writing. I’m so far along in the first draft of the young adult story I’ve been working on that I can practically taste the ending that’s in sight.

But I still have to get there. And the road to the ending isn’t a pretty one.

For the entire seeming ages on which I’ve been writing this story, I’ve known how it was going to end and what was going to happen to get the characters there. I’ve known that there was going to have to be real unhappiness—even ugliness—at this point in the story. Now I have to write it. And, honestly, I’m just not someone who naturally tends toward the dark side of things.

Even if you did tend that way, though, I can’t imagine it’s easy to write about difficult things.

To say that you’ve grown attached to your characters is basically to say that you write. It’s impossible to spend this much time with anyone—even someone fictional—and not be completely invested in their lives. For someone who forms attachments rather too easily, it’s a real problem.

Because when it comes right down to it, I know what the story needs and what has to happen to my characters…but I don’t want have to be the one to do it to them.

How do you write Harry Potter’s walk to face Voldemort in what he’s been assured will be certain death? How do you make the soaring spirit of Anne Shirley deal with the crushing blow of losing her first child? How do you leave Hazel without Augustus?

The answer is: I don’t know.

So I procrastinate. I tackle my reading list. I dabble with other story ideas. I write a blog post.

What I really need to do, though, is put my nose back to the grindstone and face up to writing on the dark side. If anyone’s willing to provide cookies, just let me know.

Book Love (Throwback Edition): The Monster at the End of This Book

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This BookRecently, I reread The Monster at the End of this Book for school (yes, it’s good to be in an MFA program!). Now, it’s not like I hadn’t read this book an untold number of times before, both when I was a kid and to my own kid. It’s a serious good time as a read-aloud, as now two generations of my family can attest.

Here’s what I discovered when looking at it this closely: it’s a brilliant book. Really brilliant. If you’re going to adhere to Leonard Marcus’s words about a picture book being a dialogue between words and pictures, author and child, well this is the ultimate dialogue.

Grover begins this dialogue on the cover of the book, and immediately digs into the emotional problem of the story with, “WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the cover, what did that say? Did that say there would be a Monster at the end of this book???” Why yes, it did say that. And who can resist wanting to know more?

Especially since the book asks kids to become direct participants in the emotional problem and in the resolution. Grover tells the child reader, “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.” And you just can’t help it—you have to turn the page.

Turning the pages means you’re participating in the joke. Kids know that Grover will be the monster at the end of the book, even if Grover doesn’t, which turns any potential worry about turning the pages despite Grover’s pleas into humor in a nonthreatening way.

On an even deeper level, the dialogue in this picture book also has to do with expectations. Set up to mirror the houses built by The Three Little Pigs, Grover first ties the pages together with rope (straw), then gets nails and wood to fasten them together, and finally creates a strong brick wall to keep the pages from turning. From their knowledge of The Three Little Pigs, children are led to think that perhaps the brick wall might actually do the trick and stop the book in tracks.

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book

When the wall comes tumbling down kids get the added thrill of upended expectations.

In the end, when Grover discovers that “This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME!”, kids get the satisfaction of seeing Grover realize what they knew all long—and the reassurance that fears of monsters are unfounded and often just plain silly.

It’s comfort for a common fear delivered with a giant spoonful of goofy, funny sugar to help it go down.


Five Awesome Things to Chase Away Snowstorm Blues

There are places in the world, of course, where it’s warm and sunny and gorgeous out. Sadly, where I live isn’t one of those places. After being assured by meteorologists all over the greater Boston area that we were going to have a “mostly rain event” with possibly 1-3 inches of snow, we’ve been bombarded by snow.

Normally this doesn’t bother me, but in March, when our crocuses were just peeking out and green things were arriving at our doorstep, another round of snow is just plain depressing.

So, here are some cool things one can do to chase away snowstorm blues (or just to check out if you have a little downtime in your warm, sunny locale.

  1. Make some healthy Thin Mints: Elana’s Kitchen has concocted a version of the classic (and woefully addictive) cookies without a lick of white flour or refined sugar in them.
  2. Check out some excellent writing advice: On Writer Unboxed, Donald Maas puts forth the kind of questions every author should ask about her characters at some point. So simple that it should it obvious, and yet it’s not!
  3. Try out one of the 29 Ways to Stay Creative: Studio Mothers presents some good ideas to keep the creative juices flowing. I think I’ll read a page of the dictionary today. Seriously.
  4. Get inspired: Burmese journalists are gearing up to launch daily, censorship-free newspapers for the first time in decades. Long live free speech—there and everywhere.
  5. Make a St. Patrick’s Day fortune teller (or, less elegantly, a cootie catcher): Fill it with “lucky” fortunes for kids and adults.

Stay warm and have fun!

Meeting Your Deadlines: The Death Star Trash Compactor of Writing

Sometimes as a writer, you’re going along perfectly happily rescuing the metaphorical princess Leia of your story—and then a deadline that seemed quite far away starts to close in on you like the walls of the trash compactor on the Death Star.

You try to brace for it, but there’s nothing that can hold the huge steel walls of the compactor at bay. You feel something brush against your leg and know that nothing good is lurking underneath the filthy water. There are no droids fiddling with the computer system to save you.

And quite frankly the smell is getting to you.

My latest deadline in my MFA program is today, and even though there’s not a heck of a lot I can do to my work at this late stage, I’m still feeling the crunch. I know everything will get sent off in proper fashion, but it’s hard not to feel that if I just had more time to revise, I could make this submission just a little bit stronger, a little bit better.

In other words, it’s a self-inflicted trash compactor of doom, and the walls closing in on me are ultimately comprised of my own compulsion to try to make everything perfect. Which means that droids aren’t, in fact, going to be able to save me—only I can.

Choosing to try to write means choosing to accept your (and your writing’s) imperfections, even while trying to work through them. That said, there are definitely times when I wish there was a Force to reach out and guide me to right path, the right turn of phrase, the perfect revision. That I could send a garbled message telling Obi Wan that he’s my only hope—and that somehow Alec Guinness will put together a rag-tag group of kids to come and save me.

Barring that, though, I guess I just need to let go and get my submission in!

Book Love: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

There are plenty of places on the internet to find negative reviews of books. This blog isn’t going to be one of them. Why? Well, first of all, I believe strongly in the sage advice that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But there’s another reason, too: I love books. I love to read. So, I want to celebrate the books I love rather than drag down the ones I’ve read that were less stellar in my opinion.

Hadley and OliverAnd I just finished a book that I loved—Jennifer E. Smith’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. It’s unclear to me how I missed this book when it was first published, but my oh my, am I glad that I discovered it now.

Hadley, a teen girl who’s travelling to London for her father’s marriage to a woman she’s never met, happens to meet Oliver (who would be an excellent candidate for the list of YA good boys, by the way) on the plane ride over. Did I mention that she’d never have met him if she hadn’t been four minutes late for her original flight? Or that they spend almost the entire flight talking as their obvious chemistry grows? I don’t even believe in fate—or love at first sight, for that matter—and I was hooked.

This could have so easily turned into a cheese-fest of gooey romance (not that I would have necessarily complained if it had). Instead, it’s a story with an incredible amount of heart, in which two kids fall quickly in love amidst difficult circumstances—and among people who ultimately care deeply for them and want the best for them.

Swoon, swoon, swoon.

I’m going to have to find some more Jennifer E. Smith to read pronto, that’s for certain.