December 29, 2009:

Book News: I had a poem picked up by Pirene’s Fountain, a really classy online poetry journal for their love poem issue. It is one of the poems I wrote when David was dying, so it has a lot of meaning for me to have it taken around this time of year. David and I had our first real date on New Year’s Eve. And that was that!

I finished rounds 3 an 4 on the Hamline MFA graduation speech. Still a bit too short. Completed the SCBWI speech revisions, now ready for print out.

Other stuff: Physical therapy in the afternoon. In the evening Heidi, Adam, Betsy and I went out to dinner at the Eastside Grill. Glen and Maddison kid-sat. Or kid-wrangled might be more accurate. I had lamb chops with a Smyrna fig sauce that was to die for.

Otherwise a fairly quiet day.

December 27, 2009:

A writer’s vacation is often filled with. . .yup. . .writing. I worked on the graduation speech for the MFA students at Hamline University in Minneapolis since I will be there mid-January which is creeping ever closer. My first pass on it was about five pages. My second ran to seven. I assume I need to speak about 15-20 minutes which means at least twelve pages. Sigh.

Adam and Betsy took the children to the Amherst College Natural History Museum and lunch out. Then Heidi and I took the girls (Betsy, Glen, Maddison and Alison) for a girls’ shopping trip at Zanna’s. We were surprised by the weather. It had been icy and windy the past two days and suddenly 50 degrees outside! We went in light sweaters.

The temps dropped to freezing at night when we set off for the Goten Restaurant (Maddison’s choice) to celebrate her High Honors at school by watching Japanese cooks light fires in front of us and throw shrimp into our mouths and. . . .a good time was had by all.

After that, we went home and crashed early, except for Adam and Glen’s boyfriend Jason and (I think) Betsy who stayed up watching football. I was asleep by 9:15. Ah the life of a famous writer! Where are the wild parties, the paparazzi, the celebrities, and drinking and. . .? Oh, wait, that’s the Other Writers. Not me.

December 25-26, 2009:

Ah–Christmas day, after eight days of Chanukah, almost a relief. Presents, dinner, family friends, all at once. I made a pancake breakfast at my house, Heidi made the dinner at hers (though I made the traditional Yorkshire pudding and gravy and brought it over. Neighbors stopped in for drinks and laughter. Then Adam and Betsy’s kids both got sneezes and hives from the cats, so the dinner and festivities were over by 8:30.

On Boxing Day, we sat around and ate leftovers. I worked on the speech for SCBWI in New York. Adam taught me a few more tricks for the website. I am not sure if I will remember them all. But I will practice some more.

The art director at Philomel must have been working overtime. She sent me the almost final jpgs for Elsie’s Bird with David Small’s  wonderful illustrations. I think I want to work a bit more on the final lines. Will do that tomorrow.

We watched “A Christmas Story.” Played Bop It and predictably I was the worst. Wee David fell over himself laughing at how awful I was. We had more leftovers and home-made chicken soup (mine) and the tomato/basil/feta soup Betsy had brought from Cristos in Minneapolis amid lots of laugher.

A good family day. A good book day. Indeed, a good day.

December 22-24, 2009:

Book News: And the good book news continues with the wonderful cover by Brian Karas for Switching on the Moon, the new poetry anthology that British poet Andrew Fusek Peters and I have put together for WalkerUK and Candlewick in the US. All goodnight poems, lullabies, from Tennyson up to the latest poets writing in both our countries. The cover arrived in an envelope the day that all publishers shut down for a ten day holiday. Andy Peters is a dream to work with, Brian Karas is an under-sung genius illustrator, and I am very happy with the project.

Also I heard that Lost Boy, my picture book for Dutton about the life of Peter Pan author, J. M. Barrie (and a strange life it was!) will also be a Junior Library Guild book.

Though with the holidays fast upon us, I haven’t actually gotten any significant new writing done.

Other stuff: I did go to see Avatar, the new James Cameron movie, with friend Bob Marstall. We agreed we would go back and see it again in a heartbeat.

Visited my back doctor and he is signing me up for another round of physical therapy since this last round has helped quite a bit, though we still have a ways to go.

Family news: Adam, Betsy, and the grandlings arrived on Christmas Eve, having driven from Minneapolis, just one step ahead of the bad weather, through Chicago, then to Syracuse, and here in time for dinner at Heidi’s house.

Holidays are both exhilarating and exhausting, the rollercoastered emotions sometimes overcoming everyone. And of course memories of earlier holidays–both good and bad–surround us. Our very houses are papered with them. Old arguments. The best of meals. Repeated jokes. Family stories. And of course the very real presence of the departed: father/husband/grandfather. It’s a wonder people get through the holidays with any semblance of good will,  not just to “all men” but to our families, those nearest, dearest, whose every wart we know all to well. Camera smile. Don’t let outsiders in on what we know, what we remember, what we cannot forget. I adore my family, but am not blind to their faults–or my own. But we do enjoy seeing one another, something I can’t say for a lot of other families I know.

And me, I am obsessed right now with two speeches I need to write in the next ten days, one for the MFA graduating class at Hamline University, one for the final hour at SCBWI in New York. I have been thinking about what I want to say. Not self-indulgent I hope, but written for those listening in. I certainly hope that once written, the speeches once written, the speeches actually get presented. The New England weather does not always cooperate for a safe winter passage to the places I have to go to give said speeches. So think good thoughts for me, both for finishing the talks in time for massive revisions and a cooperative weather pattern in January.

Interstitial Moment:

Dawn asked: “When do you know if (your novel is) really “done”? When do  you know if all the threads have been tied together? When is the time to send it out? And what kind of system do you have to organize your plot elements? Notebooks? Post-its on the wall? I’m curious.”

Dawn–that is a question that comes up frequently at conferences. I may even have tried to answer it my journal once or twice before. The problem is that there is no easy answer.

John Ciardi said: “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.” That is true in all the creative arts. I have heard painters say something similar. And musicians. And I am sure it applies to novels, too. (It sure applies to movies!) At some point you realize that you have moved on in your head to the next project, next poem, next painting. At some point you are damaging the piece, overworking it, not fixing it.

Betsy Lewin told me about when her husband Ted was illustrating my book, Bird Watch. He’d laid down what he thought was the underpainting for the title page: several ducks on a misty lake, early morning. Then he went to breakfast or to stretch or run or something. (I don’t remember.) She wandered into his studio, saw the painting, thought it was perfect, and stood guard over it till he returned. (Betsy is herself a Caldecott Honor Award illustrator as well as Ted’s agent.) “You’re done!” she told him. The painting is gorgeous. It is perfect as the opening for a book of poems and paintings of birds. In effect, the misty lake picture tells the reader: “The mist will soon clear away and you will see all these birds and others in their full glory feather by feather. But for this moment they are lake and mist and not fully formed except in your imagination. And mine. . .”

What does this have to do with the writing of your novel? Everything–and nothing. A writer gets better and better at recognizing when to stop, when to let go. Sometimes, though, even well known and oft-published writers don’t let go soon enough and overwrite. Of course it helps to have an editor waiting with a hard deadline. But even when writing on your own without a pre-sale of the manuscript, you have to get to an understanding with your material: I’ve done as much as I can or should do. I have read and re-read you, worked and re-worked you until I can no longer tell what is there and what isn’t. That’s when you let it fly to an editor.

As to my plots. . .well, there are two kinds of writers. (I have said this before as well, though it bears repeating.) There are tight plotters who write rigorous outlines and figure out the gross national product of their fantasy world, or have climbed the very mountains or swum to the bottom of the various lakes they are writing about. They work out everything ahead of time. And then there are those of us who “fly into the mist.” (I don’t remember who first coined the phrase, but I have borrowed it because it is perfect.) Er–I see I am overworking the mist element in this post! Anyway, I give my characters a life, a place, a tree to climb or a hole to fall into or a box to unlock or a treasure to find and then race after them into the mist to see what they are going to do. As I run, I try to watch and write about it, and not butt in while they are up to whatever it is they are up to.

Oh–and I read every chapter aloud and speak in the voices of y characters and hope no one overhears me or else they would have to have me committed.

Hope this helps.

December 19-21, 2009:

Coming up to the Solstice, where night begins to turn again to day, dark to light, the revolving world warms, but not soon enough for some. My fingers are toes are  constantly cold. I have my mid-winter sinusitus, back aches from hunching against the chill. I miss walking outside.

So go the early winter complaints. They will be a drumroll until spring. But I do love the snow, the fairylands etched in ice. I think Lewis was wrong about the White Witch’s influence. We need the ice, the cold, the dark to appreciate its opposite. Of course if it were winter forever. . .

We were promised the storm of the century for Saturday night into Sunday. My daughter Heidi was doing the owl census in Hatfield for the Christmas Bird Count after midnight. (She learned fro the Master–her dad.) So I was on call in case she got stuck, with the phone by my bed. Glen’s boyfriend had packed his van with chains and a shovel and sand. We were ready. Bob Marstall and I, having dinner with friends and a movie after, cut the evening short since we worried about snow and snowplows and our cars being towed. Two parties I was going to on Sunday–one in Connecticut for Boyds Mills Press, one in Amherst in honor of Ted and Betsy Lewin, were canceled. The BMP party was canceled a day ahead because of the predicted storm. The other was canceled Sunday morning when Ted and Betsy couldn’t get out of Brooklyn because of all the snow.

And then the huge storm turned east at Hartford and went up the coast and we got nothing in the Valley here. Nothing. Big Fat O. Nada. Zilch.

The Hatfield luminarium ran as usual and we illuminated our walks and driveways with paper bags filled an inch at the bottom with sand and a vigil light. I filled about 60 for my part. Maddison and two of her girlfriends did yeoman duty to get the bags out in the icy weather, and lit about 2/3 of them before practically perishing of the cold. Heidi finished the rest. I was too cold to walk down to the center of town and stand around singing Christmas carols, so I shrugged that off. I have Reynauds Syndrome which means my hands and feet are cold enough, thank you. But I went to the neighbors’ for a lovely dinner party afterwards, and they said I’d been smart to stay indoors.

Heidi and I officially (ie the contract arrived at the agent’s) sold Princess Pig, a novelty book in rhyme about a very dirty/messy pig who is a princess. And I did a bit of work on Girl’s Bible and some poems. Some more on a new book Jason and I are proposing. And that was about it except for holiday shopping, present wrapping, and generally being lazy.

Oh and I got a bizarre phone call from a college in West Virginia where David had taught for a year back in 1959-60, before he moved to New York and we met. Seems he has some money coming from his pension plan and they had NO idea who he was, and did serious research to find me. Of course, I wouldn’t have been the named legatee on the document since we hadn’t yet met. Probably his mother and father who are long dead. So what is going to happen to the money (not a lot but certainly enough to make me want to sign the papers) is not yet clear. Somewhere he’s laughing at all this!

Interstitial Moment:

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you.
And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”  -Arthur Plotnik, editor and author

Of course that is the GOOD editor, even the GREAT editor. But alas, in a career that spans 46+ years and 300+ books, I have occasionally known editors who only want to let the their own fire show through, or who leave the writer with heavier smoke than before, or who take out the fire extinguisher and hose the writer down. I do not work with them again willingly.

The others, the good and great editors, make me better than I am. I do not take their input lightly. In fact the g/g editor’s input is one of the best arguments against self-publishing that I know, the other two being distribution and marketing.

December 17-18, 2009:

My back seems to be good one day, terrible the next. I am going to physical therapy and water therapy and doing my stretching exercises daily, but I can never guess from one day till the other how I will feel when I wake up. Time for a new mattress, methinks.

Books: Scholastic sent me (twice) copies of an audio/book package of How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food. I worked more on the book with Jason, and am pleased with some of the poems.

Worked with an illustrator friend trying to re-kick-start his career with a picture book he tried a number of years ago. I still remembered it with great fondness and think that if he tries to recast it as a graphic novel (it has difficult World War II content), he might have a better shot. Lent him my copy of David Small’s graphic novel memoir Stitches.

Fun Stuff: Thursday was the annual WMIG Christmas party (Western Mass Illustrators Guild) at a local (to me) illustrator’s house. We had lots of food, drink, laughs, some artwork shown, and love. Nothing better.

Fun Guilty Pleasures: Catching up on America’s Next Top Model, watched “Up”.

December 15-16, 2009:

Okay, I will admit it. I was wrong about the shut down of publishing for the holidays. This is what happened in the past two days:

I sold three fantasy poems to Asimov’s. PW gave a rave review to my upcoming fantasy novel, Except the Queen (go to co-author Midori Snyder’s website In The Labyrinth to see it) and the SF Book Club  took the book as well as an alternate selection. The editor of The Emily Sonnets sent me the edited manuscript thoughtfully done), the assistant editor on Lost Boy: The Story of J. M. Barrie sent me the f&gs (gorgeous).

Whew!

So I worked on the following over the two days: going carefully twice over all the Emily Sonnets questions and changes asked for (most but not all taken, or slightly altered). Went over the latest editorial stuff on Sister Bear and sent it off. Rewrote version #9 of Mermaid Who Loved a Pirate and sent it to my agent. Worked quite a bit on the poems for Lunch Bunch with Jason.

And I also hosted the writer’s meeting, bought a side table for my living room in the forlorn effort to bring it into the twentieth century, if not the 21st, and did another SKYPE presentation, this time for a group of third graders in Chicago. Watched the movie “Up” which I thought wonderfully done though I resisted it as sentimental for the first fifteen minutes and then was absolutely roped in.

Interstitial Moment:

In a listserve I am on (which I cannot name or quote because it is private) we have been discussing Author Notes and Dedications. And some of the correspondents have been suggesting that authors should not do lengthy Notes or Acknowledgments. After a few rounds of this, I wrote the following. Kudos to any of my readers who get all the references–or the majority of them.

As a writer, I can thank any dang person I wish. I can acknowledge the help I have gotten. I can mention my cat (if I have one) or my pet guppy for that matter (I don’t have one of those either.) And get this–I CAN MAKE IT ALL UP TOO!
As the reader you can skip it all; you can take a black crayon and mark it out; you can erase it, efface it, even mace it, I suppose. What you can’t do is tell me what I should and shouldn’t put in my own dedication and acknowledgment page.

This post is dedicated to Julius and Julianna who have made sense in this argument; to my late husband who would certainly have had something acerbic to say about the subject; to the memory of John Wilmot and our wild and truthful nights together; to my father’s ghost since he read everything I wrote; to my seventeen children who range from brutally frank to frankly brutal; and to my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Jiler, who gave me gold stars.

(Some of the above is actually true, but who cares?)

 

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