January 19-25, 2011:

Major snowstorms, lots of manuscripts and proposals sent out, meetings, dinners with friends, lunches, teas with friends, and a tv interview. It was a busy week for some. Not for me.

Add to that a breast cancer scare–which in the end, had more to do with how much weight I’d lost (by hard work and good diet) over the last year and a half. But it took two days of mammograms, and a sonogram and a lot of worry.

As for work, I was mostly doing the revision of BUG, wrote the presentation for SCBWI New York, kept up my poem a day regimen, plus a children’s poem, and went through my entire old manuscript collection, hoping to find something worth working on. Discovered two possibles and weeded out the ones absolutely not worth anything, and told Heidi to Deep Six them.

And yet it seemed a very lightweight week to me. Perhaps the health scare kept me from concentrating and once I found out there was nothing to fear, the relief worked against concentration as well. Perhaps, it had more to do with my seasonal writing disorder. I find it hard to write/concentrate/do imaginative work in the dark months of the year. What Emily Dickinson called “the very Norway of the Year.”

So I filled my time instead with short things (poems), non-thinking stuff (filing, weeding old manuscripts, sending out proposals), relationships (interactions with friends, dinners, teas, lunches, meetings), and fun distractions (movies, reading a mystery novel, email, Boggle, and the like.) And only one bit of real writing–the revision.

Lightweight indeed.

Interstitial Moment:

I sent this to David Harrison to post or to send on to the young adults trying to write poetry for the first time. His prompt to them was the word “water” and I said I would show them something about revision. And here it is:

Dear kids:

No one—NO ONE—ever gets a poem right the first time. In fact the wonderful poet John Ciardi once said, “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.” So I thought I would try this month’s word with you and then talk about the changes I make as I revise.

First try:

The Word for the World Is Water

The word for the world is water,

who we are, what we weep,

how we rid ourselves of waste,

what we drink, what we cook.

Drinking tea, I think of the vast seas,

the  colored fish, eels snaking

through the depths, the low bubbles

rising slowly, slowly towards the watery sun.

I sit on the toilet and remember salmon

leaping upstream in West Virginia.

Yesterday I poured warm water and salt

into my clogged sinuses.

Pregnant, I watched my unborn child

swim in amniotic fluid  in the sonargram.

Today it snows. My grandchild traverses

her high school campus in high boots,

knowing the percentage of water

in the human body.

The word for the world is water,

And I know it with every drip.

Second try:

I have taken my title and the beginning of the poem from a title of a scienc fiction book by Ursula Le Guin, “The Word for the World Is Forest.”

The Word for the World Is Water

The word for the world is water:

who we are, what we weep,

how we rid ourselves of waste.

Water is the word for the world:

what we drink, what we cook.

in our vitreous eyes, in our blood.

Drinking tea, I think of vast seas,

multi-colored fish exploring coral reefs,

eels snaking through the depths,

low bubbles rising slowly,

slowly towards the watery sun.

I sit on the toilet and remember salmon

leaping upstream in West Virginia.

Yesterday I poured warm water and salt

into my clogged sinuses.

Pregnant, I watched my unborn daughter

swim in amniotic fluid  in a sonargram.

Today it snows.

My daughter’s daughter traverses

her high school campus in high boots,

knowing the percentage of water

in the human body.

The word for the world is water,

I know it with every drip.

Already you can see how I am changing bits and pieces, after reading this aloud. The ear and eye are different listeners. We need to please them both.

I repeated the title in the fourth line because the poem seemed to need to slow down a bit. The lines ran on too long.

I love the word vitreous and glad it found its way here, at least for now.

Note that I have removed a lot of the word “the” in the poem, making lines tighter, less reliant on the kind of words that are just fillers.

Also notice I have rearranged lines to make them make more sense.

Why did I change
child” into “daughter”, and “grandchild” into “daughter’s daughter”? I wanted to be more specific, and to harken back to the birth image so that when we read “daughter’s daughter” we know that child swam inside my daughter’s womb as she had begun her watery life in mine.

Now on to revision number 3.

The Word for the World Is Water

The word for the world is water:

who we are, what we weep,

how we rid ourselves of waste.

Water is the word for the world:

what we drink, what we cook,

in our vitreous eyes, in our blood.

Drinking tea, I think of vast seas,

multi-colored fish exploring coral reefs,

eels snaking through the depths,

low bubbles rising slowly,

slowly towards the water-scanned sun.

In the bathroom I remember salmon

leaping upstream in West Virginia.

Yesterday I poured warm water and salt

into my clogged sinuses.

Pregnant, I watched my unborn daughter

swim in amniotic fluid  in a sonagram,

knew she would be born 78 percent water.

Today it snows.

My daughter’s daughter traverses

her high school campus in high boots,

The word for the world is water.

I know it with every drip.

I have the metaphors down pretty solidly now, but am having second thoughts about some of them. I want to evoke how watery the sun looks from the bottom of the ocean, but the sun itself isn’t watery, so I have changed that to water-scanned. Not happy with it yet.

I also thought that “sitting on the toilet”, or even “sitting in the bathroom” was too literal (and graphic) an image and pulls the reader away from what I am saying, even possibly making them giggle.

I had to google  sonagram—first to spell it correctly. And then again because I didn’t really remember seeing a sonagram of my daughter who was born in 1966, to make sure they were around then. Well, just barely, as it turns out. In the mid-sixties sonagrams were just coming into regular use with pregnant women, and since my daughter was born in a small hospital western Massachusetts, there were probably none there at the time. Or at least none that I remember. I am giving myself a bit of poetic license here.

And I wanted to state the percentage of water that composes the human body, had remembered it wrong as in the 90s. Seems that a baby is born with the greatest percentage, so I used that. The percentage drops down into the 60s in an adult.  Is this kind of research necessary? Not for every poem. But the poet doesn’t want a reader to fall away from the poem because of mistake in the actual history that drives the metaphor.

I know that after only three major revisions, I am certainly not done. But I am done with this poem for now. I might try another 3-10 revisions before deciding the poem doesn’t work at all. Or I may make one more revision and everything will alide into place to my satisfaction. For that moment. After that, I will have to decide, a la John Ciardi, whether to abandon the poem or keep on working.

I hope this shows you some of the inner workings of the poetic mind.

Your book friend,

Jane Yolen

January 16-18, 2011:

Two words. Neti Pot. I have been buying them on and off for five years and then, after reading the instructions, would grow faint of heart and throw them away, or give them to someone who wanted one. I kept thinking one needed a medical degree to operate one, and the idea of almost drowning in order to clear my sinuses was not appealing. But I needed to do something.

So–again–I bought a Neti pot. And dithered for a day and a half. And finally, before my shower, I tried it. And surprise, not only was it easy to do, but I could breathe again. . .for a solid ten hours. And three more times, the magic kept working. Hurrah.

Once I could breathe again, I began to write with more energy: another three chapters of revision on BUG, some more poetry, and catching up with a lot of business and bills.

January 8-15, 2011:

Since I spent more than half of the week in my my jammies because I had a buzzsaw in my throat and muscus waterfalling from my nose,  I got little writing done. First cold in well over a year, and at times I worried about a strep, but eventually things got better.

After too many days of watching mindless tv and napping, I managed to pull myself together and get all of the galleys done on Snow in Summer, write a short essay of “The Distinctive Voice” (400 words) for a someone else’s book on writing, penned a few not-very-good poems, and did revisions on about six chapters of BUG. For me that was minutiae for a week. And these weeks go galloping ahead, whether I am fully engaged with them or not.

I was also involved in a dialogue in front of an audience with my dear friend Corinne Demas and sponsored by a new local writers’ umbrella group, Straw Dogs Collective. We were addressing what it means to be a well-published, hard-working writer. Since I expected maybe 10 people would make it, and the Straw Dog folks were hoping for 25, we were all blown away by the 90 people who pushed into the APE Gallery space in Northampton. There weren’t enough chairs and people were sitting on the floor and on boxes. And buying books like crazy afterwards.

Then yesterday, I was on a panel with four of the artists who have worked on my books: Jane Dyer, Barry Moser, Ruth Sanderson, Bruce Degan on a panel at the Carle Museum. Again, I had small expectations, and there seemed to be close to 200 people there, including 7 of my Yolen cousins and Heidi. Afterwards, I did a galley talk for about 40 of them. I guess the moral of these two events is that I should always surround myself with good people!

But during the week, I had to cancel two lunches and a meeting at my house–one to snow, two to sickness–but still managed at the end of my sick time to get to Mira Bartok’s launch for her amazing memoir, The Memoruy Palace, and the private party after. Went with my friend Bob Marstall since we are both dear friends of Mira’s and her husband Doug. But stayed out much too late, and didn’t get home till past midnight. Set me back a bit in my recovery.

Along the way, I also signed contracts for the Grumbles in the Forest poetry collection written with Rebecca Dotlich, for a French edition of Emperor & the Kite (first published in 1967, so there is always hope in this business!) and for a Korean edition of Elsie’s Bird.

Looking forward to a better work week starting NOW.

Rant:

The day after the announcement of the Newbery/Caldecott, the TODAY show usually has the winners on for a bit of cultural update and to underline how important the awards are and what they mean to the literature of childhood. But this year, they bumped the author and illustrator winners for an interview with Snooki, the brash, trash-talking semi-literate star of a reality show called  “Jersey Shore”. Note–I have not seen the show but I have seen interviews with her and read an occasional snippet about her.

I sent the following to the Today Show. Have not heard anything back yet. Not sure I will.

Dear Today folks:

I could understand important news–assassination attempts, tsunamis, even the death of 1950-9670s culture hero David Nelson bumping the winners of the biggest book prizes for children’s authors and illustrators off their normal place on the TODAY roster. But Snooki? Surely the literature of childhood is more important than a half literate reality star.

Or maybe TODAY is just mirroring the USA as it is in danger of becoming: a second-rate culture that worships mediocrity and cares little about the death of genius or the leadership of America in the world of ideas.

Feh.

Jane Yolen, called by Newsweek “The Hans Christian Andersen of America”, author of 300 published books.

PS Lee Bennett Hopkins, who keeps upon these things more than I do, says that the next day they had Spike Lee and his wife on pumping up their latest children’s book by saying “There are very few GOOD books for children being published today.” Give me a break. . . !

January 1-7, 2011:

I wonder when I will write 2011 without having to think about it? Probably some time in March. So far I have only damaged two autographs for books, one check, and had to redo the above header. I expect there will be more. The new year invigorates some people. They are looking ahead to huge changes they hope for, getting more things done, writing down resolutions as if the things were handed down on stone tablets. On the other hand, I find it a non-notable moment in the year as I don’t expect to be doing much different. I am enjoying the eventide of life. Things are slowing down a bit,  but my book ideas, my writing still flows. I have a great family, good friends. I have been blessed with luck, though I admit to working hard as well. But the days actually are galloping ahead too fast for me. I just want a bit more time to savor them.

This first week of January has been chockablock full. A New Year’s party at friends Corinne and Matt’s house where the children’s book group mostly sat in their sunny alcove and chatted amongst ourselves instead of meeting and greeting new folk.

I have started writing a poem a day, and will try to do it for a year. So far I am on top of the count, but it’s early days, of course. If I’m lucky, I might get a handful of good poems out of this exercise. It’s mostly to keep my poetry mind sharp. Not sure if any of the poems written this way will be keepers.  Remember, these poems will get, at most, only one or two revisions though at year’s end I’ll see if there are any I might want to work on. But will try and put one up every few additions to the journal:

January 7:

City Snow

The steady fall of snow quiets the city’s heart,

till its pulse is scarcely detectable.

I wait for a taxi on a street corner

bare of artifice, all Christmas decorations

packed away and stored, carols once blaring stilled.

My decorative scarf is the only color

against the snow, useless for keeping my head dry.

Twenty minutes of peering out into the lane,

I long for a hot bath instead of meetings.

Like an old warhorse, ready for the knacker, I shiver,

little runnels of cold like worms beneath my skin.

Once I rode a lipizzaner  whose body wrinkled that way,

not with the cold, but with contained energy.

My energy dissipated, I almost turn for home

when a taxi, smooth as a leopard, runs a red light,

screeching to my side. Water sprays,

the light changes, I puddle into the seat.

Honking once for practice, the driver slips us into gear,

and the city becomes alive once more.

Do I like any part of this poem? Two images please me: the pulse of the city slowing, and the old horse bit. Whether they belong in the same poem, I’m not sure. I like the phrase “I puddle into the seat” and it alone may be a keeper. Ask me in a year.

I went into New York City for three days, staying at my friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s apartment. I call it Bloomsbury-on-Hudson. The trip ncluded meetings with three editors, my agent, a visit to the Museum of Natural History with an old classmate from elementary school, two dinners out, and a scary ride through the snow from the train station to my house close to midnight, my car sliding about like Tonya Harding on a bad day.

I managed about four more chapter revisions on BUG, figured out problems in two picture books (one already contracted for, one written for my friend Bob Marstall, based on some of his doodles). We had a writers’ meeting, I got my hair done, met with Dan the Handy Man about some new work that will be done this winter. As always, a combination of the ordinary and the magical.

And another question:

Sue asked: “Do picture books really always have to be riotous? What do you see as the biggest change in PB writing today?”

Well, no, they don’t have to be riotous, though we can all be forgiven if we feel that way, and certainly the biggest new sellers seem to fall in that category. But then try to remember that books like Owl Moon and Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon are still selling after 25 and 40 plus and 50-60 years later and you can’t call them laugh riots.

But picture books have changed. They tend to be shorter, as if the editors as well as the kids are deemed to have small attention spans. Though actually it has to do with a new perception of picture books as not being suited for anyone above 5 years old. Of course we all know that isn’t true. But the latest Common Wisdom tells us that picture books shouldn’t come in over 1000 words long, and under 500 is preferable. David Wiesner’s pocketbook has not suffered by his doing wordless picture books. But then he is a genius at what he does.

And the rest of us? Well, I write long picture book (Elsie’s Bird) and picture books that rhyme (How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, My Father Knows the Names of Things, Not All Princesses Dress in Pink) and  really short ones (Under the Star) and nonfiction with lots of text (Lost Boy) to name some fairly recently published picture books of mine and only one of those could be considered riotous and only one is really really short.

And it’s true that picture book slots have been cut back at most publishing houses in favor of YA books. Cut back–but not out.

In the end, the fate of picture books–indeed of all books–hangs onwhether the Pub Committee in its infinite wisdom (Not!) realizes what can sell and whether they want to buy it.

But consider this: when a picture book has been turned down over a period of fifteen years by absolutely ever publisher and then suddenly finds an editor who loves it to pieces and buys it (it will be out next year, and no, I won’t tell you which one!) it turns everything I think I know and understand about publishing on its head. Not much help in answering your question, Sue, but it’s all I’ve got!

Interstitial Moment:

CS sent me a question by email that has to do with pitching to an agent and getting a response which, while it praised the writing and the premise of the book, was a decisive NO. The reasons? They seem to be twofold. First the agent didn’t fully love the “voice” and second didn’t think he/she could love the book enough to be the right advocate for it in today’s difficult market.

CS  questions to me are also twofold:

1. Should I worry about the voice? I know that voice is the most subjective part of writing. Is it just that this agent didn’t like the voice and another one might?

2. I’ve been told by other writers that it is a very unique idea but the agent said that they weren’t sure how to pitch it in today’s market. Is there such a thing as too unique?

My answers are entwined. First, we should always worry about the voice in our book. But when something is new and exciting, it may be a hard sell. In fact, as my late husband used to say to me, “It’s easier to sell the known than the unknown quantity. Something truly original and new will take a bigger leap of faith on the editor’s part.”

Who knew that a voice such as Laurie Halse Andersen’s in Speak would work until she did it? And it was a first novel, too. Who knew the combination of humor and gravitas pared down to the bare minimum could have such brilliant psychoogical impact in a picture book till Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are? In both cases the voice is absolutely unique. And if I might also mention in this august company the voice in my picture book, Owl Moon, which was turned down by the first five editors who read the mss. as being too gentle and quiet and underspoken. All things which have since been highly praised in reviews, editorials, textbooks.

However,–and this is the big however, and the only one that counts–you always want an agent and an editor who comes to your book with a full and understanding heart. Nothing worse than an agent who is more concerned with what’s wrong with your book than what’s right. Or the editor who is antsy about how to pitch the mss. to her committee or the revised book to the sales force. I want the agent and editor to be  as totally committed to the piece as I am.

As to being a critter called “too unique”? There’s bad writing, stupid characters, plot holes as big as Florida sinkholes. There’s a voice that has flatlined and cannot be resurrected. But there is no such thing as “too unique,” either grammatically or as a critique, though your book may may be too far ahead of its time to sell right now.

So my answer–that agent did you a favor, being honest and also praising where praise was due. Move on. If the book is good, worthy, interesting, unique it will find an agent and an editor who will want it. If not, then it is a practice piece. Take what you have learned from it and write the next book.

End of December, 2010:

The days galloped towards the new year, the second decade of the 21st century. And I galloped with them.

Some of that galloping was in book work–trying to get hold of a picture book idea with Heidi. We are on our third approach to it and I’m still not sure it’s working. Rewriting about 9 chapters of BUG which still needs much hand-holding. Signing the Grumbles from the Forest contract. And of course–as in all book world time–waiting, waiting, waiting.

I went to a New Year’s party at Holly and Theo Black’s house. A Venice costume masked ball party, though I didn’t wear a costume and hate the closed-in feeling of masks so didn’t wear one of those, either. Managed to stay up till after 11 but not good enough to see the new year in.

I have some of the following on my immediate new year plate:

1. Writing of course.

2. Rewriting, definitely.

3. Playing with children, grandkids, friends in New York and beyond. As often as I can. As often as they want me.

4. Speaking at the Eric Carle Museum. On a two-person panel with friend Corinne Demas about being working writers, in Northampton. At the SCBWI New York conference.  All this is in January. Then it begins to really go pear-shaped since after that and I will be hitting Boston, Indiana, Springfield Ill, Minneapolis, Jamestown NY, Bolton MA, Chicago, Florida, SCBWI New England, Charleston SC, and finally (deep breath) Scotland for 3-4 months.

5. Paying attention to diet, exerise, and the ups and downs of health that women my age suffer. (Thanks to gravity, thanks to having children, thanks to having some diffident DNA and some difficult DNA.)

But mostly, I am looking forward to 2011. Of course–consider the alternative.

So a lift of the glass to absent spouses, family, friends, lovers, partners, all those who have left us much too early and/or in particularly difficult ways. I plan to live the life that is left to me to the fullest, write the best books I know how, be the dearest and most loving mom/Nana/friend I can be. And help others along the way. I suggest that you, my readers, do the same.

Send me questions. It’s been nearly a year since anyone has done that. I will answer them if I can, here in an Interstitial Moment.

 

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