Infinity and Summer (and Curvy Spines)

There are two weeks of school left for the Vernick kids, and summer starts just on the other side. Each year, that first week after school ends—that delicious week of no alarm clocks and lazy mornings—summer feels infinite.

Also of an infinite nature: revision. It feels like it could go on forever. When I’m lucky enough to have a contract and a deadline, that’s the only time it has to stop. I’m working on a second round of post-contract revision on Screaming at the Ump (in addition to myriad pre-submission revisions). Once I finish this round, there will be little tweaks, I’m sure, but revision will no longer be infinite. It will be done.

Which is good, because I am far more comfortable with forces that have beginnings and endings. Infinity and limbo are a big part of my family’s life right now–we’re waiting for life-altering news, for finality, regarding employment, a much- much- much-desired writing project, a new book out on submission. We are all learning a lesson about waiting and patience, a lesson I’d like to smack in the face. Limbo in small doses—that I can handle. But it feels like the percentage of that which is unsettled right now is out of whack and way too high.

So here’s an ending for those of you reading the blog since the beginning. The curvy-spined girl-child, who lived 22 hours of each day in a brace for nearly two years, had a fantastic year-later visit with her orthopedist. Treatment, aka bracing, is considered successful if the degree of the patient’s angle does not advance beyond five additional degrees from the measurement at which she was first braced.

Not only did hers not advance—it somehow went down by two degrees (considered within the margin of error). There was much hooting. Hollering, too.

And though it felt infinite at the time, we faced an almost-ending of the scoliosis years with that visit. The girl child starts high school in the fall. And was told she’d need one last visit, right before leaving for college. Which, to a not-yet-freshman, seems like infinity.

But her mother suspects it’s really just about tomorrow, isn’t it?

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Malfunctioning Monsters: Tara Lazar Interview

You can feel the excitement, can’t you? It’s finally happening! Tomorrow! Tara Lazar’s The Monstore, illustrated by James Burks, finally hits shelves tomorrow! And Tara was kind enough to stop by for a quick chat about defective monsters, the power of chocolate moguls and carrier pigeons. Without further ado:
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Can you tell us how The Monstore came to be?
 The Monstore was a title for months before I did anything with it. Then I had to pitch an idea to an agent and I came up with a premise: “A boy wants to return the monster he bought because it doesn’t spook his little sister.” When I finally sat down to write the story and the boy swung back to the Monstore to complain, I figured the only thing the manager could say was, “Sorry. No returns, no exchanges.” I thought the consequences would then be hilarious if the kid couldn’t unload his malfunctioning monster. And I was right. The story sort of just spilled out after that!
 
Were you a big reader as a child? What were some of your favorites? Were there any characters you wished would move next door to be your new best friend?
 Yes, I loved to read, always. I adore almost everything by Roald Dahl, Judy Blume and William Steig. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my hands-down favorite, and the movie is also one of my favorites of all time. (Let me just say: I like Johnny Depp, but Gene Wilder will always be my Willy Wonka.) I didn’t have a character I wanted to live next door to, but I did want to live close to the Wonka Factory. I still do. I even have an outline of a chocolatier tale for a middle-grade novel, if I ever get around to writing it–except the Wonka-like entrepreneur is a villain! I mean, people with power often abuse it, and who could have more power than a chocolate mogul with unlimited access to the sweet stuff we all crave?
 
Is there any book you wish you’d written?
There’s a novel for adults I read recently and thought if I ever wrote a novel, it would be similar to this one: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.  The story is told from the point of view of an Aspberger child’s imaginary friend and it’s just brilliant. The friend, Budo, explains all the rules governing imaginary friends and how some of them look very unusual (because their owners typically forget to imagine them with eyebrows, for instance). Budo moves through two worlds–the real and the imaginary–and it turns out that he has to save his friend from a dangerous situation. I can’t say more because you just have to read it. The author, Matthew Dicks, is a fifth-grade teacher, and he has that eleven-year-old voice down pat. The story felt so real even though it was so fantastical, and that was an amazing feat to conquer. Loved, loved this book so much.
 
What are you working on now?
 I am terribly excited over several manuscripts I have brewing, including one that is rather longish for a picture book (900 words), yet it’s magical and sweeping and inspiring, so it just has to be that long. But truth be told, the past two months I’ve done little writing. I’m so busy preparing for the launch of The Monstore. There’s a chance it may not be in Barnes & Noble because of an ongoing dispute between the bookseller and my publisher, so I’ve been trying to get the word out in every way possible. Even via carrier pigeon. Although Mo Willem’s pigeon would probably be more effective.
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For anyone who doesn’t know, Tara is the person behind Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), which has helped many of us not only compile a 30-item list of picture book ideas each autumn but sell some of those developed-into-manuscript ideas as well! Be sure to check out her blog. And this great interview with the great John Schu.
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Thanks, Tara!
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So?

chalk_muralOkay, the last time I blogged here it was January. So?

That so? reminds me of all the retorts of my childhood. While we neighborhood kids mostly played together, drew with chalk, played Red Light, Green Light 1-2-3 and Giant Steps, we did have our less sunny moments when we’d shout:

(the widely used) Get off my property!

So?

Ew! That’s corroded! –used to describe anything disgusting.

And, my personal favorite: Ew, you’re corroded.

do not disturbThe rambling intro of this post notwithstanding, this was the first year I decided to try to act like a semi-disciplined writer. Sometimes just walking the walk can get you there, right? (This reminds easily-reminded me of my almost-successful college plan to trick a good friend into believing we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but I’ll save that for another day. Or no day.)

I came up with a good way to stick to the writing task at hand: an electric throw blanket. I’m not saying it’s magic or anything, but it is. The only time I use this blanket now is when I’m writing or revising in the chair in my bedroom. Because it was a cold winter and a long one (that seemed to start in October with the storm named Sandy), I got a lot done. A kind of magical amount for a not-accustomed-to-discipline writer like me.

The big news of the dormant-blog time period is that I sold my second novel, SCREAMING AT THE UMP. I started writing it shortly after parting ways with my first agent, many years ago. Though I wrote primarily picture books, it seemed most people found their agents with novels. So that’s what I decided to try and it worked! Erin Murphy signed me on the basis of an early draft of this very book. We subbed it years ago, had nothing even close to a nibble, and decided to put it in the drawer.

desk drawerI wasn’t too depressed, as I soon learned that WATER BALLOON, my first novel, needed years in a drawer before I was ready to revise it properly. Last year I decided it was time to give UMP a chance.

There were years—researching, writing, revising—that went into the years-ago draft, and then a massive revision late last year, under my magic blanket. Since then, it’s been fast. It sold in March and I’ve already seen its likely cover. (Very cool and excited to share as soon as I get the okay.) As someone accustomed to picture-book publishing, it’s just crazy, this swift pace.

And the best part is I already know how I work. So instead of starting from scratch when I get back to the writing board, there’s about half of a first draft of a new novel, NEVER HAPPENED, sitting in a drawer, hoping this time counts as its time in the drawer. Because a girl could get used to this publishing novels thing.

IMG_1313_peoniesSo? So now it’s late May and three days ago, the weather switched, overnight, from winter to summer. We used to have something called spring, but it’s a fading memory. Still, the May scent of peonies is delicately emanating from the oversized floppy flowers in our kitchen. The school year feels over even though the kids still have a month left (!). bogart and vinnie from bloomsburyAnd in three weeks, I’ll be celebrating the release of BOGART & VINNIE: A COMPLETELY MADE-UP STORY OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP, illustrated by the great Henry Cole, which I believe was the very reason I started this blog.

So? So, I imagine I’ll be posting a bit more.

Until then, friends, enjoy what passes for spring in your neck of the woods ….

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First Drafts and Winter

2013: My Year of Less Dysfunction

It occurred to me a few years ago that if I detest winter, and I DO, that means I’m detesting a quarter of my life. Just like a pig parade, that’s a terrible idea.

So I asked those who liked winter what they liked about it:

Cozy blankets.

Warm drinks on a chilly day.

Hunkering down at home.

I prefer mojitos poolside, but yeah, okay. If there has to be winter, blankets and warm slippers and chai lattes could probably help.

Meanwhile, in the writing side of my life, I finished up my second novel, the first draft of which was written years ago. And while I wait to hear from my agent about whether I need to keep working on it or if it’s ready to go, I started work on a new novel.

Healthy, right?

But I realized that I’ve been feeling kind of wintery about first drafts. I dread writing them. My favorite part of the novel process is probably the last 20 percent—the cleaning, refining, drawing subtle connections between related parts. I LOVE that work. But the stuff that comes before? Not so much.

I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or inane to be writing a first draft in winter. But with my determination to be NOT dysfunctionl as my guiding force, it’s going pretty well.

I think the key to all of this may be the fact that I changed where I write. My first two books were written in the kitchen of my house. And then my husband started working from home. And using the kitchen more frequently than you’d think a person could.

I moved upstairs. I cleaned my office. Cleared everything off my desk.

Yet where I find myself most writing days is sitting the big arm chair in my bedroom. This is the key: I sit beneath an electric throw blanket. I’m toasty. In fact, one day last week, after meeting my goal of writing a thousand words, I decided I’d rather write a second thousand than get up and exercise, which had been the next scheduled act in my planned not-dysfunctional day.

Next year, I’ll figure out adding a healthy attitude about exercise into the first-drafting and winter plan. For now, being toasty in the corner of my bedroom is working pretty well.

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Healthy Writing 101

happy writer copyI have been known to moan loudly while working on novels. I mostly laugh out loud while working on picture books. Sane perspective: Why do I keep writing novels?

I’m not sure I know the answer. But it might be that nothing in this world is as satisfying, to reader-me, as connecting with a novel. I love thinking about the book I’m reading all day, finding moments here and there to read five pages, curling up in that imagined world at night.

january-resolutionsThis year I came to the table determined to be a healthy writer. So far, so good. (And yes. I am well aware that it is the first double-digit day in the very first month of the year. Shhhh.)

I’m working on my third novel. The first one was, amazingly, published! The second one is awaiting a reading by my agent. Those two were written in the most half-assed way imaginable. I can’t even describe it. I don’t want to remember it.

Looking back, I wish I’d paid more attention in grad school. I believed then I’d always be a short story writer and didn’t listen closely enough on the day that my professors must have shared their magic words about how to write a novel. It goes a long way toward explaining my recurring dream about attending graduate school again.

I have one resolution this year: to not drive myself crazy when writing a novel. So far, so good. Which is not to say that each day’s writing is good writing. Far from it.

calvin-kick-assBut I no longer have to come up with convoluted ways to get myself in that chair, writing. I used to send my family away and write eight thousand words a day for a three-day weekend (see earlier paragraph re/dysfunction). Now I’m working at an even pace, writing almost every weekday.

I always said outlines were not for me. But when I read about the Snowflake Method, I thought, some of that works for me. It makes more sense for me to think about the manuscript I’m writing in terms of sentences and paragraphs than Roman numerals. I’m not an outline girl (apologies to Mr. Scher, 9th grade social studies teacher, who really, really loved outlines), but that doesn’t mean I can’t pre-plan in a different way.

It’s been so long since I started a novel—both my first and second sat in a drawer for years before undergoing intensive revision. I remember this driving, desperate feeling of MUST INCREASE WORD COUNT. I was unhappy about the pace of my progress until I reached what I thought would be the halfway mark.

harrietBut this time around, I’ve been enjoying some of the things that happen early in the process, like the way my story surprised me by not being entirely about what I thought it was entirely about. It makes me fall in love, a little bit, with my subconscious.

And I’m proud, so far, of being not dysfunctional.

Do you have any writing resolutions or goals?

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December Peace

So apparently you’re supposed to actually post on your blog every now and then.

I’ve finally finished (almost) working on my next middle-grade novel, which has the working title Screaming at the Ump. Goodness. I can’t tell you how good that feels. I’m now in a surprising and content little pocket of time, waiting to hear back from the brilliant writer-friends who are reading my manuscript.

relaxIn other words, there’s absolutely nothing I ought to be working on right now.

Of course, you’re never really done, right? Those readers will pick up on myriad oversights, writer-tics, if not downright big-old hard-to-solve problems. And then I’ll have to get right back to it. But not now! Shhh! Don’t even mention that! Right now I’m singing and I can’t hear you. Fa la la la la…..

For years, the idea of getting through another novel, start to finish, was hanging over me. It’s a heavy weight. And now it’s on vacation. Which means that in some ways, so am I!

Fa la la la la….

There are exciting projects ahead—an attempt to write a chapter book with a close friend and brilliant writer, developing the ideas generated during this and last year’s PiBoIdMo. I’m even excited about the next novel I want to write, which I started, just so I could take the abstract albeit giant and potentially-debilitating-if-you-think-about-it-too-much-without-actually-doing-it step from idea to actual word document.

But with a step like that comes the feeling that this little vacation I’m enjoying is about to come to an end. I think I shall step ever so slowly…at least until January.

Enjoy a merry December, all.

Video warning: this really doesn’t start until a minute and a half in. And the quality is bad. But once it starts…1978 Bruce Springsteen! Fake snow! Some beautiful vocals near the end. (See above: I have time for this now.)

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Stockpiling

These are strange times. This week has felt more like four months. We stockpiled before the storm–water, flashlights, canned foods–and also enjoyed some strange serendipity. My daughter’s soccer team fundraiser was selling Yankee Candles, which were delivered the day before the storm. Our house may have been dark, but it smelled like lime-vanilla nirvana.

With the power out, we all read a lot. When my son ran out of YA selections, I handed him Augusten Burroughs’ Possible Side Effects. And I was very alarmed when he said, “Now I understand why you like him so much. He’s just like you.” A lot to think about there.

Meanwhile, after the storm, I started, along with many, taking part in Picture Book Idea Month. This is my second year participating, and it’s another form of stockpiling. The thirty ideas I come up with this November will serve as the large supply gathered and held in reserve for use during a shortage.

I wrote about my own PiBoIdMo success story over on the PiBoIdMo blog last week. That post was also about how much I hated it when other writers bemoaned how there was no time for ALL the ideas they had. I had the opposite problem. But not anymore, reader! Because now I stockpile. I’m not done with last year’s list—there are some there I still want to develop. And some of my shiny new ideas are pretty exciting too.

Like I said, though, these are strange times. This post, sadly, is like the state of my mind. Regular life in our own house, and then, oh my goodness, the world right outside our door. Our neighbors, mostly to the east, up and down the coast, have lost so much. Many are still without power.

It’s that time of year when stockpiling seems like the natural thing to do, and yet so many had everything they owned, their own stockpiles, washed away. Things can change from good to bad awfully, awfully quickly.

Another storm’s heading this way. Be safe, everyone.

And here’s to better days.

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