I seem to have taken up a new tradition of writing a reflective post just after back-to-school. Last year's post was: My Summer of Laughter and Forgetting.
It was about my first fragile attempt at putting the pieces back together after losing my mom. It was apt, and it was honest. Reading it now, I wade in the emotions of that time and emerge on the other side, feeling stronger than I did then; just a little bit more at peace with what happened.
Sadly, the summer of 2013 came on the heels of another loss for our family. A heartbreakingly similar one. My aunt, my mom's sister--whom I loved dearly--passed away in June, after a long illness. I know I'm not alone in my big, close-knit extended family when I say, we are all feeling a measure of shock that this could happen again, and so soon. But it did.
My aunt's services were different than my mom's. Ever the nonconformist, my mother had requested a party, not a memorial. (There was a band.) My aunt's took place at my childhood church. They were more traditional, but no less beautiful.
The evening of the wake was gray and drizzling. The weather seemed to reflect our heavy hearts. And then, when calling hours were over, we stepped outside. The rain had stopped. The pavement was slick and glistening. I turned my face to the sky. And there it was--a rainbow--stretched wide across the sky just above us.
Days earlier, only hours after my aunt had passed, a friend emailed me a picture of a huge rainbow over the lake where she'd lived. And here it was again.
Now, I understand rainbows are naturally occurring (and not all that uncommon) weather phenomena. But you simply can't
look up at the sky, feeling as bereft as we all did, to glimpse the most exquisite rainbow you've ever seen, and not wonder if there's a message in it.
Divine--or not, I chose to see it as an affirmation of the belief my aunt held until the end--that she was blessed, that we are all blessed, and that we should feel grateful for all the the good and the love that surrounds us.
This summer I saw more rainbows than I can count. It seemed after each rain, there one was. Friends saw them, too. Many a morning I'd wake up with a picture waiting in my inbox of a rainbow they'd seen the evening before, or on their morning walk.
I feel like a My Little Pony
character when I say: it was a rainbow-filled summer.
So much so, that I began to ask, "Where's the rainbow?" after each storm. And not just the literal storms, but the metaphorical ones, too. Late in the summer, my husband faced some professional challenges that kept him up more than a few nights.
Amidst the worry and weight of it all, I asked, "Where's the rainbow?" A few days later, there it was. In the form of a newer better solution that has made him happier and more successful.
Now, when darker moments happen, I wait for the splash of color in the sky. I remember that the truest gift is having the mind, body and spirit to weather the storm--and move forward.
[G Love playing at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet, MA this summer. I turned to my friend and said, "I hope he does Rainbow." A moment later I heard the chords to the lead-in for the song. ]
I don't often write blog posts in the aftermath of tragedies.
I guess it's because at times like these, words fail me, and I'm sensitive to the pain and grief of those directly affected. While I'm truly grateful for the reflection and comfort offered by others, I'm wary of feeding into what can sometimes feel like a collective appetite for sensationalism.
Also, I tend to cocoon with my family in the wake of tragic events. I turn off television and social media and hold my children close. When my husband and I discuss what's happened, we do so in hushed whispers after the kids have gone to bed. We do this to protect them. To keep them safe.
But this morning, when I turned on my computer and saw on a good friend's Facebook feed that she was asking for prayers for their dear friends, The Richard family, who lost their 8-year-old son in yesterday's Boston Marathon bombing, I was unable to hide my grief.
I had heard yesterday that a young boy was among the causalities, and like all of us in New England and around the country, I felt a mix of shock, anger and despair for the city of the Boston and the victims of this terrible act. When anyone is harmed in an event like this, it's heartbreaking, but there is an acute and singular anguish when it's a child.
Then, when I read my friend's post, I realized I had met this family, years ago, at our friends' wedding. Suddenly, it all became even more immediate, and terrible, and the emotions that I'd been hiding from my kids came spilling out.
I called my friend. She lives in Texas, now. She was doing what I was, what so many of us as parents do, putting on a strong, reassuring face for her kids while sneaking into the bedroom to catch bits of news, to cry--and to grieve. I told her I remembered her friends from their wedding. She told me a bit more about them. What remarkable, beautiful people they are, beloved in their community, civic-minded and actively doing all they can to improve their town and make it a better, safer place to live.
She told me how helpless she felt being far away. She and her husband are longtime Bostonians but work has brought them west. Her voice tight and thick, she said, "This is my city."
I remember feeling the same way after 9/11--wanting to be back in the place where I grew up, to do something, anything that would make me feel less helpless. I feel it again, now.
I wished I could say something to ease her pain, but all I could do was tell her I love her, and that she and her friends were in my prayers.
When I hung up the phone, I thought about the Richards. I remember the conversation we had at the wedding because we were doing what all new parents do when out for a blissful night of freedom without kids: talking about our kids. Like us, they had a baby at home. Like us, they were learning to balance having a new family with work, marriage, etc. Like us, they would go on to have two more children and build a life in a tight-knit New England community.
They are just like us.
I imagined the countless ways, big and small, they made sure to keep their children safe. I saw them buckling their babies into safety seats and holding the back of the bicycle to keep it steady; dolling out veggies on the plate and keeping a bedside vigil when one had a bad cough or a fever. I saw the look of heart-wrenched worry that first day they watched their kids go off to school after Newtown. Imagined them fingers crossed at their son's game, hoping he'd get a hit, or score a goal.
Like us, I know they did everything within their power every day, to keep their children safe.
My kids saw me crying. I told them what happened. Then I reassured them, as best as I could, that things would be ok. I told them the stories of the heroes of yesterday. How the people of Boston came together to help each other. I told them what I know to be true--that the city will heal, and I asked them to pray for the Richards, and all the families affected by the tragedy.
I hope that is enough to keep them safe.
Yesterday I found one of those "belly bands" in my closet from when I was pregnant.
For those who don't know, the purpose of a belly band is to be able to stay in your "skinny jeans" a little longer while accommodating your ever-expanding waistline.
It's a genius invention.
The problem is, when I pulled the belly band from my drawer, a horrifying thought ran through my head: "Maybe I should keep this. It could be useful."
Oh, no, I didn't! (Oh, yes, I did.)
That's when I realized I need to get back on a plan of daily exercise--STAT! I've also been woefully lax about sticking to a regular writing routine. I blame the holidays--and cheese--for my recent slacking, but the holidays are over. Time to lose the excuses. And the muffin top.
Then I had an idea! Why not combine my two goals into one big challenge with a silly name and declare it publicly on Facebook?
Brutal. But brilliant!
Since I don't want to start, then fall short and get discouraged, I'm making the challenge manageable.
I hereby pledge to writing two pages (if it's more, GREAT, but at least two) and "wogging" two miles a day, for the next two months. ("Wog" is a term my friend made up which means you jog a little, then walk a little to catch your breath. It's perfect for out-of-shape runners like myself, who need to start slow. I'm hoping after a few weeks, I'll be be more jog--less wog.)
If any of you out there who want to join my 2-A-Day-Write-Wog Challenge then go ahead and make the pledge (keeps you honest) in the comments section of this blog or on Facebook.
We can post updates on our progress and cheer each other on! Illustrators, filmmakers, crafters, knitters and artists of all kinds are welcome! Please feel free to join in and customize your "2-A-Day" however you'd like. (Two small drawings? Two sketches for a new pottery design? Whatever works.)
Good luck and "wog on!"-Anika
At the dawn of 2012, my husband and I stood at the edge of one of our favorite places on earth - Lake George, NY - and made our new year's "resolutions." Except they weren't resolutions, exactly. We both wrote down three things we felt were holding us back in 2011, and three desires for 2012 on pieces of paper. Then we struck a match, burned them one by one, and watched as the ashes caught the wind and disappeared into the lake.
It was a nice ritual. A moment of peaceful reflection after what had been a difficult, tumultuous year. I liked this better than making traditional resolutions which are inevitably broken by the end of February. Because whenever I get resolute about anything, the universe tends to throw me a curve. As if to say, "Not so fast. I bet you weren't expecting THIS!"
And 2012 had its share of the unexpected.
A writing project derailed and then got back on track in a new and ultimately wonderful way.
After losing my Mom to cancer in 2011, her sister (my aunt, who supported us all throughout her illness) began her own battle with a rare and aggressive cancer.
My best friend since we were five years old was also diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatments.
I left a job, then wound up coming back to it only to appreciate and enjoy it more than ever.
A conversation with a writer friend of mine sparked a writer's critique group with three phenomenally talented children's book authors whose counsel (and friendship) has been a gift.
Despite the highs and lows, as I look back on 2012, what I feel most is gratitude. My children are thriving. My family is happy. My husband and I still make each other laugh and even go on dates occasionally. I've met generous inspiring writers who are are invigorating my own writing and showing me that having a toddler and a successful writing career is indeed possible.
And although Chris and I both still struggle with some of the emotions and self-preceptions we sent up as embers into the crisp Adirondack air one year ago -- and some of the desires we scribbled on our bits of paper have yet to come to fruition -- we are steadily moving toward them, together.
If I make one "resolution" this year it will be to remember to count my many blessings every day of 2013, particularly in the context of recent events like Hurricane Sandy and the tragedy in Newtown, CT.
In this one goal, I am most certainly and wholly resolute.
Recently I embarked on a monthlong social media "fasting" experiment in order to focus more on writing. The following are my somewhat surprising, slightly alarming findings and observations:
1. I am something of a procrastination virtuoso.
When deprived of my distraction of choice, I simply invent a new one to take its place. Examples: Wandering the aisles at BJ's Wholesale Club; purging my paperback collection; offering to host a pre-holiday direct sales natural foods party for a friend.
2. I have comically bad timing. November was National Picture Book Month. I am a picture book author. Enough said.
3. After 13 years of marriage, my husband and I would definitely lose The Newlywed Game were we asked to play today. I know this because despite multiple attempts to guess the Facebook password he reset and kept secret from me, I couldn't hack, I mean log
into my account.
4. People who quit Facebook gain an average of 5 lbs. And by people, I mean...me.
5. Some moments are harder to let pass than others without posting about them on Facebook or Twitter. Examples: My Uncle Dave leading the family in a rendition of "Let There Be Peace On Earth" before Thanksgiving dinner; Christina Aguilera's pink afro on The Voice.
6.Without Facebook you have to remember people's birthdays. And send a card.7. Robbed of social media's barrage of election commentary, snarky political banter and ludicrous aggrandizing nonsense—I had absolutely no idea who to vote for. (Just kidding!)
8. My kids like me more when I'm not checking the twitter feed on my phone in the middle of a conversation.
9. I like me more when I'm not checking the twitter feed on my phone during a conversation.10. Social media is great—in moderation. And it's at its best when used as a forum/community to lift-up, cheer-up, help, serve, give, laugh, share, illuminate, inspire, and occasionally... procrastinate. ;)
Maybe it's because November is National Novel Writing Month,
a.k.a "Na-no-wri-mo," or maybe it's that we are nearing the end of 2012 and I'm revisiting the professional goals I set for myself at the start of the year, but I'm feeling the need to limit (in the precious few hours of the day that I designate for work) my distractions.
And the winner for the most distraction-causing, time-sucking, manuscript-thwarting activity?
You guessed it: Facebook. Not just Facebook, but all social media: Twitter, Pinterest, Linkdin,Tumblr, Instagram and on and on.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not making a statement, here. I'm a proud consumer of social media. I dig it! Truly! I love connecting with friends and family on Facebook; love reading my Twitter feed during a debate; love hearing news from colleagues about new books and exciting projects. It's awesome, especially for a stay-at-home-part-time-writing-mother-of-three like me.
But sometimes, I love it too
much. And on days when I'm in the throes of a full-on fit of procrastination--social media is an enabler.
So, I'm declaring the month of November: "No-mo-so-me" (No More Social Media) for me. Hopefully, this break will accomplish what's intended, which is to refocus my time and creative energy, make me more introspective with my work, and more productive, overall.
I've asked my husband to change my passwords and keep them in a sealed envelope in his studio, so that I won't be tempted to sneak a peek when the going gets tough. (Yep, had to get drastic.)
If you need to get in touch between November 1st and November 30th, send me an email
, give a call, write a postcard, send up a flare or knock on my door (if you're in the area and aren't a stalker).
Until then, to all my friends, tweeps and compadres in cyberspace... wish me luck! I'll see you on December 1st!
One note: I will
make a teeny tiny exception to go on Goodreads to vote for some of the talented authors I've met this year who are nominated in the "Goodreads Readers' Choice Awards," and that activity feeds into my Facebook page. Other than that, though, the goal is cold turkey!
Ok, I better go so that I can get my fill of all the Facebook pics of your kids/ pets in silly costumes before midnight!
Laughter is good medicine.
This summer I had regular and hefty doses of it.
Last year on July 8, I was at my mom's hospital bed saying my final goodbye. The months that followed were a blur. I faced the daily struggle of balancing my own grief with my responsibilities as a wife and mother. My daughters measured their own emotional states by the tenor of my moods. The more short tempered or despondent I was, the more anxious and untethered they became. They looked to me to provide solid ground beneath their feet, after a loss that rocked their world.
It was up to me to make them feel safe. And some days, I just wasn't up to the task.
When we arrived at the one-year anniversary of my mother's death, I confronted varying emotions: Disbelief that a whole year had passed, profound sadness, but also a pull to come out of the dark. Watching someone you love go through a protracted illness, seeing their suffering, is a trauma. It takes time to actually want
to heal. Perhaps it was the influence of my Jewish friends, whose faith ritualizes a year of mourning, but at the one-year mark, I felt the first stirrings of that desire.
To do it would take a mix of forgetting, and remembering. Trauma stays with you. You have flashbacks. The images aren't pretty. The only way I could think of dulling their sharp edges was to seek pleasure. Grieving people sometimes shun enjoyable activities because they're depressed, and because they feel detached and maybe even a little guilty doing them. I knew for me to begin to heal, I was going to have to lose the guilt—and invite joy.
I needed to remember my mother's words. She told us in a letter she wrote before she died, that the best way to honor her
life, was to savor the sweetness of ours.
I began planning our summer days with that simple purpose. Find joy. Savor it. Laugh.
As a result my family and I had the summer of our lives. We visited the places and the people we love. We read books. We didn't rush anywhere.
We said no to things we didn't want to do and yes to things we did. We cooked our favorite meals and ate them together. We told jokes at the table. We took long walks on the beach and looked up at the stars.
In early August, I spent a weekend in Maine at a writing retreat where I met a group of amazingly talented and generous women. We picked blueberries, enjoyed a lobster dinner al fresco, and yes, even did a little writing. On numerous occasions that weekend we laughed so hard, we cried.
Each of those moments was an offering and a prayer of gratitude to my wise and beautiful mother.
My year of mourning is over. My summer of laughter and forgetting has allowed me to remember what's important.
|Group photo with the 2012 LAL State Winners!|
Last night, I had the pleasure to present award certificates and deliver the keynote speech at the Rhode Island Center for the Book's 2012 Letters About Literature
Awards.Letters About Literature
is a national reading and writing program of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, presented in partnership with Target and supported locally by RICB.
60,000 young readers from across the country participated, including nearly 800 Rhode Islanders. Students were asked to submit letters describing how an author's work -- novel, non-fiction, poetry -- changed their view of the world or helped them realize something they didn't know about themselves.
With a focus on reader response and reflective writing, one winner and several honorable mentions were chosen in three competition levels, ranging from grades 4 through 12.
I had the chance to read the winning letters beforehand, and heard them read-aloud by the winners at the event. All of the letters had a powerful narrative voice and displayed a talent and wisdom beyond the young writers' years.
It was honor to present the students with their awards, and an inspiration to hear their words. All in all, it was evening I won't soon forget.
Click here to learn more about Letters About Literature
and Rhode Island Center for the Book.
Below is a transcript the address I gave to the students, their families, and members of RICB.Keynote Addressby Anika DeniseRhode Island Center for the Book Annual Meeting and Letters About Literature AwardsWilliams Hall Library, Cranston, Rhode IslandJune 4, 2012
Good evening, everyone. First, I want to say thank you to the Rhode Island Center for the Book for inviting me here to speak to you tonight. It’s an honor and a privilege. Not to mention, great fun to be spend an evening celebrating reading, writing, and the books that inspire us! So thank you, for including me in the festivities. There's even balloons... it's a party!
Second, I’d like to CONGRATULATE all the winners, honorable mentions in the Letters About Literature
It takes courage to submit your words, to participate… to put something of yourself out there into the world to be judged. Writers must do this all the time. And it’s never easy.
But, you did. You wrote something compelling and meaningful, and tonight, you’re being recognized and celebrate
While getting my two oldest girls off to school this morning, there was much groaning and dragging of feet and "do we have to's?" Usually they head off to school without a fuss. But we've all just come off a lovely holiday weekend. The weather was warm and sunny. We enjoyed the beach at the end of our street. The "big girls" spent a day up in Boston with their Auntie eating gelato in the north end and visiting the aquarium. We gardened a little, and cooked out.
It feels as though summer's already here. And then this morning, they had to get their heads back in the game for THREE MORE WEEKS OF SCHOOL! Even I was dragging my feet and groaning. We're all a little burnt out on the school year, and the taste of summer's freedom was just too sweet.
On my second cup of coffee, I realized I needed to do something to boost morale. It was time for a speech. [Insert eye-roll here.]
"We have 18 more days left a school," I said. "And we could go into these three weeks like we are now, bumming, or we could focus on the things we like about school and try to enjoy some part of each day."
No reaction. They weren't buying it. And in truth, I wasn't yet, either. But I pressed on.
"Come on, what's one thing you do enjoy about school? There has to be one thing for each of you."
"My friends," said Sofia. "Sally and Staci, Anna and Caroline."
"That's right!" I said, excited she was playing along. "And Sally will be away for the summer, so you can look at these days as the fun time you get to spend together before she leaves for vacation."
I was getting somewhere.
"And four-square!" Isabel chimed in "Yeah, I like four-square too," said Sofia. "And I have a really nice class. This is the last time we'll all be together."
"Exactly. So, when you're all outside at recess together, look around, and think about how nice a class it is, and feel glad you're there."
It was my turn: "I'll miss the moment when I get you both to the bus and I can have my coffee in the quiet. I'm going to savor that moment everyday until the end of school."
Now, I was starting to believe my own words. "It's called living in the 'present' and enjoying it."
"Like Kung Fu Panda!" said Isabel. "'Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present.'"
(Thank you, Master Ooguay.) "That's it," I said. "You've got it."
There was no more groaning. They packed up their things and headed out the door. I won't exaggerate and say that they were excited, but they were considerably less bumming.
The lesson of staying present, of not resisting what I can't control, is one I learn and relearn again and again. But when I remember it, and live by it, my life, my writing, my family is always better for it.
So, for these last few weeks of the school year, I'm going to take my own advice (and Ooguay's) and find something to enjoy and appreciate in each day. Because as corny and cliché as it sounds...today truly is a gift.
Another goal in my renewed commitment to "full-time-part-time" writing, is to SEEK HELP. Not in the clinical sense (though I believe any good critique group is one part therapy, one part invaluable counsel, and one part snacks), but more in the way of finding resources that will help me hone my craft and become a better writer.
Recently, my husband gave me the book, "Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate," by Brian McDonald. Brian has taught story seminars at PIXAR, DISNEY FEATURE ANIMATION and George Lucas' ILM. He's an award-winning short filmmaker and a sought after speaker from Los Angeles to Wall Street.
His book largely references screenplays, but his advice on the mechanics of story and plot can be applied to all forms of storytelling, including writing a novel.
Here's what it boils downs to, according to McDonald: Seven easy steps to a better story. Come on, that can't be right! If there were seven easy steps, I'd have known about them long before this!
But there are. And yes, in some form, I have known them all along, but I love the way he presents them in his book, so simply and succinctly. He credits the steps as being taught to him by his writing teacher Matt Smith, who learned them from a fellow named Joe Guppy. To Joe Guppy, I say, thank you! And to Brian McDonald: Bravo, for having the sense to put them in a book, and for adding his own sage advice on how to apply them.
1.) Once upon a time
2.) And every day
3.) Until one day
4.) And because of this
5.) And because of this
6.) Until finally
7.) And ever since that day
These are the elements, the "invisible ink," McDonald says are in every story. And he's right. If you can fill in the blanks of your story after each of these steps, then you do, in fact, actually have a story.
He also discusses other important pieces like dialogue, and subplot and tension, but even if you had only his first chapter, only his seven steps, you'd be on the road to becoming a stronger storyteller.
I have been looking at my stories in a new way, thanks to Mr. McDonald.
And I urge any writer, every writer to read it, too.
After a lovely vacation week visiting my family in the southeast, this is the official start of what I'm calling my "full-time-part-time" writing career.
I'll admit, day one (yesterday) consisted of not so much writing, but more desk-clearing and laundry. Still, it was a good first step.
This morning, as the cursor on my screen blinked in anticipation, I felt the first real wave of panic hit me since making this decision. All the usual fears invaded my brain: What if I get a massive case of writer's block? What if writing during nap-time and evenings isn't enough? What is no one pays to me to write a single word EVER AGAIN!?
Typically, when in the throes of a good "career freak out," I head out for a walk. I'm not great at meditating in stillness, but a brisk walk often helps me quiet my mind. This morning I had two problems: First, the baby was napping, hence me, "butt-in-chair" in front of my computer. Second, it's pouring rain and chilly here in Barrington today, and I needed to be distracted -- not drenched.
So, feeling a tad desperate, I decided on another type of movement meditation: My kids' Just Dance game for X-Box 360.
I know very few people over the age of 17 who look cool doing Just Dance or any of those Wii or X-Box dance games, and I assure you, I am no exception. But this was an emergency.
So, I pulled the drapes, cranked up the volume, and just... danced. Until all I was thinking about was how to a master a move that no one looks good doing who isn't in a boy band.
I let go. And laughed at myself. And when the music stopped, and I realized I'd bested my high score in "Shake Your Groove Thing," I felt better.
My lesson for the day? Sometimes butt-in-chair isn't going to happen, until you shake off the fears (even if it's only temporary) that are holding you back.
And if a quarter turn and a hip slap is what works... then do it. Just dance.
"La sangre llama," said my father as my baby daughter bounced contentedly on his lap. Typically, she'd be a little strange with someone she doesn't see regularly scooping her up out of my arms and whisking her away, but she wasn't. Her eyes were taking him in, moving over his bearded face in that intense way of hers, when she popped the chubby thumb from her mouth, and a sweet smile spread across her cherubic face.
La sangre llama. It means: "The blood calls."
It was something my Titi Rosie first said seven years ago when she and my father visited us from Florida. My middle daughter Isabel was still a baby, and despite having just met my dad for the first time (and battling her first bouts of stranger anxiety), she snuggled up on his lap like he'd been rocking her to sleep every night.
Now, I'm someone who values the family we choose as much as the one we are are born into. I come from divorced parents who remarried, have a large extended family, and several friends who are as dear to me as blood relatives. I know very well that the bond of blood relation is not all there is to it.
I feel fortunate for all of my familial relationships, including ones that have been made through marriage, or the long history of friendship.
But in the case of my dad, who lives far away, I'm so grateful the blood calls, and that despite the distance and the long months between visits, my children are drawn to their Pop-pop like magnets.
As I spend time with my dad, his wife, my sister and brother, and all my relatives here in Florida this vacation, I fall into the relaxed rhythm of family... and my soul feels restored.
|My Pop, with my youngest daughter Esmé|
I enjoy naming characters, but I'm hardly scientific about it.
I know writers who've given more thought to naming their characters than their first born. They do exhaustive research, try out several variations, and go back and forth with their critique groups to find just the right moniker.
And this is wise, because a character's name is extremely important. It's the first impression, a clue to his or her personality.
But I just don't seem to do it that way.
For me, it's a gut thing. My characters' names just happen. If it wasn't such a cliche, I'd be tempted to say they name themselves. (It really does feel like that sometimes.)
Perhaps it's because I tend to take a Dickensian approach. Oftentimes, my characters will have names that embody who they are and what they do: A mouse named Tibbles for instance, or a hare called Mr. Fops.
Sometimes the connections are more nebulous, but nonetheless, when I hit on the perfect name, issues of its appropriateness to time period and genre seem to fall into place.
Conversely, if I'm struggling, I know there's more work to be done in fleshing that character out. It's actually a fine litmus test for character development.
If you're looking for more (reliable, instructional, scientific) information on naming characters, I found this fabulous four-part series from "The Prairie Wind," Newsletter of the Illinois chapter of SCBWI.
I've been thinking a great deal about world building. It's an odd phrase, really. Sounds more like a subject for the Geneva Convention than the concern of novelists. But if you write fantasy, world building is key.
Currently, I'm at work on a middle grade novel featuring mice as the main characters. And although I don't have the daunting task of creating an entire universe with its own class, culture, government, technology, botany and imagined creatures that many high fantasy middle grade and YA authors do, it's still vitally important that the world in which my mice exist be plausible and interesting.
There are a number of questions I must answer in order to avoid causing the reader stop and ask them, too.
First, is the issue of scale. How do the mice interact with larger animals in the story in a believable way? Will my characters and plot follow the natural order of our world, or will it break those rules with a purpose?
What about clothing? How do I integrate clothes into the story so that it seems perfectly natural that a mouse would don a trench coat and fedora?
And the most important question of all: Is this an alternate universe where mice rule the day, or are they an adjunct, hidden part of a larger human world?
Believe it or not, when I first began writing this novel, I hadn't decided the answer to that question. It's only now, in the editing and rewriting stage, that I'm fully addressing (and sometimes grappling with) that issue.
And whenever I'm grappling with some aspect of craft, I find it helps me to look to the masters for inspiration.
Here are a few authors who build "critter worlds" like nobody's business.
EB White, Stuart Little
Mary Norton, The Borrowers
Robert C. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH
Richard Adams, Watership Down
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows
2 Comments on "Please call back later, I have a world to build.", last added: 4/10/2012
The Q&A portion of a school visit is always an enlightening, entertaining experience.
Time and time again, I find myself impressed and delighted by the intelligent, incisive questions even very young children ask. Questions about process, inspiration and creativity that reaffirm what I already know: Kids are infinitely clever, and we as authors and educators should never underestimate them.
Which is why I was not surprised when at a recent school visit, a little boy raised his hand and asked: "How much do you get paid for a book?"
I was not surprised, but not exactly prepared, either. First, I made an attempt at humor.
"A million dollars," I said, with my pinky to my chin, doing my best "Dr Evil" impression.
These kids are in first grade. They're too young for Mike Meyers.
Then I gave the standard and probably all-too-confusing answer about how a publisher pays the author some money in advance of the book coming out, which is based on a guess of how many books the publisher thinks will sell. Then, if a book sells more than what they guess, the author gets paid a small amount on each book sold after that.
I tried to move on, but the little boy was undeterred. And on to me.
"But how much do you make for a book you write?" he asked.
"It varies, depending on the length of the book."
This is true. Sort of.
Then it hit me. He didn't really want a dollar amount. (Well, probably he did.) But what his infinitely clever little mind was actually trying to work out was: Can I do this as my job?
To which my answer was, "I can tell you this, Chris and I make our living creating books for kids, and it's the best job on earth."
The little boy smiled, and I did too. Because it's true.
Yes, baby number three came screaming into the world in early March, making our quartet a quintet.
She is healthy, beautiful and strong and we all fell hopelessly in love with her the minute her petite little fists grasped our pinkies. Babies truly are pure joy and love, and in those first few bleary but wonderful weeks I felt a peace and contentment that was unto itself—an awareness of my blessings and a sense that my family is complete.
Then of course, the crying began.
Everyone (and I mean everyone) told us the third child is always the easiest. Some universal law, they explained, dictates that that baby no. 3 will generally cry less, sleep more, and go with the flow simply because of birth order and a survival instinct that prepares them for having parents whose attention is split three ways.
So imagine our surprise when we found ourselves pacing the rug with an over-stimulated, gassy, fussy 4-week-old who wouldn't let us put her down. It's bad enough when no manner of rocking, bouncing swaddling or singing will soothe your newborn, but the idea that your baby is somehow violating the laws of the universe just adds insult to injury if you ask me.
Living with a fussy baby can turn even the most functional of families into grouchy, unbathed, take-out-addicted zombies, and for a little while, that was us. But slowly and steadily we have adjusted, finding our way through the haze of sleep deprivation into a rhythm that works with our new family of five.
Roles were adjusted (my husband learned how to tie ponytails and pick out tutus), responsibilities shifted (my older daughters can now load a dishwasher and vacuum their rooms) and daily routines were established that help calm all of us, not just our sweet wee beastie.
The crying has subsided for the most part and has been replaced by full night's of sleep (almost) smiles, coos and those glorious first giggles. The peaceful feeling is returning (at least until the next growth spurt).
As we emerge on the other side of those harrowing three months, I have actually, unbelievably began writing again, and have returned to my post as the "story lady" and author event coordinator at the bookstore. If you'd asked me a month ago when I would pick up the pen again I'd have said, "When she's 18."
I've discovered I'm a better writer when there's peace in my soul, but chaos in my kitchen. Life and all its crazy is what gives me motivation and inspiration to create. The good, the bad... and the spit up.
Back-to-school means more time for writing. Sort of. My 6 1/2 month old who is currently napping as I sit tapping doesn't exactly conform to a set writing schedule, but at least I have these stolen moments to stew in my creative juices, to brainstorm, to ponder to... to... procrastinate.
Yes, the more time I have, the more creative ways I can find for procrastination - a common hazard of the self-employed.
Here's something fun to mention while procrastinating... I have added a few autumnal book signings to my website. Click HERE for the schedule.
Ooooh, and I've also at last created a facebook page for my books HERE. Please stop by and click the like button if you want another way to know what I'm up to, as I'll be making event and book announcements there too.
Now, back to those creative juices. That reminds me, I'm thirsty. And hungry. I think it's time for a snack break. ;-)
Every year just before Halloween, my local hometown bookstore gathers a group of regional picture book, middle grade, and young adult authors and illustrators for a day of signings, spooky stories and treats!
I come to this event as an author, and I'm always honored to be a part of it, but also as a FAN of all the wonderful authors and artists we have in our area.
The entire line-up this year is fabulous, and I'll be happy to see some old friends and familiar faces, like Alison Paul, author of The Crow: A Not So Scary Story, Jamie Michalak writer of the brilliant Joe and Sparky early reader series, and R.W. and Zoë Alley, the husband-and-wife team behind the witty updated fairy tales There's A Princess In The Palace and There's A Wolf At The Door.
I'm also looking forward to meeting Sarah L. Thomson, author of many amazing books for children, including the middle grade fantasy novels Dragon's Egg and The Dragon's Son; as well as her latest book: Mercy, The Last New England Vampire based on a true Rhode Island tale; Pamela Lowell, author of the powerful YA novels: Returnable Girl and Spotting for Nellie; Willa Perlman, the author of two beautifully written picture books Goodnight, World and Pocket Kisses; and Liz McGrath, whose new book The Ghouls Come Haunting One By One I will definitely be picking up to read with my girls this Halloween night.
So if you are in the area, don't miss it. What a great opportunity to have some fun with the kids, meet authors, hear stories, and pick up a signed book. Not to mention supporting your local independent bookstore - which is ALWAYS a good thing.
Hope to see you there!
This past weekend, I had the pleasure to attend Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat.
As a retreat "newbie" I was nervous, but excited, to be spending two-and-a-half days away from the responsibilities of home, kids, work, press releases, etc., to focus on my works-in-progress, meet other writers, listen, learn and be inspired.
Happy to have friend and fellow Barrington-based children's author, Jamie Michalak,
as my retreat-buddy, we set off like Thelma & Louise (minus the convertible and armed-robbery), with our bags packed and the sun dipping in the late afternoon sky.
A short while later, we turned onto the long, winding road of Whispering Pines. Cozy cottages nestled beside a picturesque pond greeted us, and both Jamie and I commented that it was hard to believe we were still in Rhode Island. We'd traveled only 30 minutes, but already felt a world away from our daily routines.
As the the rest of the weekend unfolded, we discovered that a beautiful setting is just one of many
things that makes the Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat so special.Charlesbridge Editorial Director Yolanda Scott
shared with us her thoughts on winning picture books in her presentation on Character, Plot and Voice.Jo Knowles
, author of LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, JUMPING OFF SWINGS, PEARL and the forthcoming SEE YOU AT HARRY'S discussed elements of a great beginning in her First Pages
workshop.Delacorte's VP Executive Editor Michelle Poploff
recounted the road to publication for several of her most successful debut novelists, including Clare Vanderpool, author of the Newbery Awarding-winning MOON OVER MANIFEST.
Literary Agent Andrea Cascardi of TransAtlantic Literary Agency,
in encouraging us to keep the faith, delivered perhaps my favorite mantra of the weekend (borrowed from a colleague): "Revise and persist!" Alexis O'Neill
, author of LOUD EMILY, THE RECESS QUEEN and ESTELA'S SWAP, flew in from California to give us all a lively and information-packed presentation on successful school visits.
Award-winning illustrator Suzanne Bloom
dazzled us with daring displays of artistic acumen in her presentation on picture books.
Some of my favorite moments came each night when the mentors and writers gathered around the tall stone fireplace to listen to First Pages
. Electricity filled the air as the anonymous first pages were read aloud, and then critiqued by our mentors.
And of course, there was the FOOD. Anyone who attends Whispering Pines and blogs about it, no doubt dedicates a full paragraph to the food. I will sum it up this way: Gorgonzola Gnocchi. Enough said.
I could go on. There was so much more. From Jo Knowles' insightful and generous critique of my middle-grade manuscript, to the infectious enthusiasm of Conference Director Lynda Mullally Hunt
This morning, my thoughts are on school visits, due in part, to the wonderful presentation I listened to by Alexis O'Neill over the weekend at Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat. Alexis writes the column for the SCBWI Bulletin, "The Truth About School Visits" and she gave us some great tips for creating or revamping a school visit program.
Another reason school visits are on my mind is this is Reading Week season, and I'm preparing to visit the Hathaway School in Portsmouth, RI on April 4th, along with my husband, Chris. We'll be unveiling a short film about kids and books we created with the help of videographer Adam Wasilewski, some wonderful kid volunteers, and the Providence Athenaeum.
Starting an assembly program with a film is, on the one hand, passive, but if it gets the kids laughing and warmed up (which I hope our film will), then it can be a nice ice-breaker.
One thing that's important, especially with a younger audience, is to get them involved interactively in the presentation right away, and not just be a talking head in front of the room.
Some authors take a more theatrical approach, such as bringing puppets or the playing an instrument -- but if that's not quite your style (puppets make me break out in a cold sweat, for instance) there is always an opportunity to recite a poem, sing a song, or play a rhyming game.
In the short time I've been doing school visits, one thing I realized is you have to be yourself, and this is something Alexis stressed in her presentation too. Figure out what you comfortable with, what makes you unique, and play to your strengths.
A friend gave me a wonderful piece of advice today.
We were talking about self-confidence and silencing the little voice that tells you you're not good enough, smart enough, talented enough, etc.
Writers are notorious for letting this voice get in the way of their work. Starting it, finishing it, touting it, or all of the above.
She advised me to create a figurative "Board of Directors" for my life. A circle of people I hold in my mind who nurture, encourage and inspire me, but never criticize. The best part is, I don't even have to know them personally. (Yes, Oprah Winfrey can be on my board.)
Nor does a board have to be comprised of those in the here and now. The deceased qualify. This was a revelation to me because my mom, who passed away last year, was my best sounding board and biggest champion. The idea of her as "Chairman" (or chairwoman, as the case may be) of my board is a lovely, powerful thought.
The only requirement for my Board of Directors, is that they be people who surround me in positive, encouraging light--either in how the treat me, the messages they put forth to the world, or how I remember them.
So when doubt creeps in, as it is wont to do, or I'm in a situation where I feel somehow "less than," I can consult with these trusted individuals, know that they believe in me, and move forward.
Creating my Board of Directors has been enlightening. I must say, I'm quite happy to have them around.
Go ahead, try it. Who's on yours?
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Jane Yolen says the secret to her prolific writing lies in three little letters: BIC. An acronym for "Butt in Chair."
My former editor Patti Gauch told me the same thing. Write every day. Some days it will flow, some days in won't, but the key is showing up.
Today, I'm one step closer to fully committing to BIC. It wasn't an easy decision, but I'll soon be resigning from my post as Events Planner for Barrington Books. Anyone who knows me, knows how dearly I love this book store -- the staff, the customers, the incredible children's section -- all of it. In the last four years, I've made cherished friends, met amazing authors, and have enjoyed being a small part of helping this little neighborhood gem grow into a bona fide "Destination Store."
Sometimes, though, the path forward becomes clear. My husband (and picture book-partner) Chris, recently signed on to do a new project. It will mean longer hours for him, and needing to look at the balance of our work schedules in a new way.
So, if there was ever a time to leap, it's now.
Every experience shapes us as writers, and I have no doubt my experiences and the people I've met at Barrington Books will make their way into a future story. (One that takes place in an enchanted bookstore, perhaps? Hmmm.)
Until then, you know where to find me. I'll be here, at my desk..."BIC."