Gargoyle

Summer’s gone by in the blink of an eye — well, maybe a few blinks towards the end of August, when my son poked me in the eye and I suffered a corneal abrasion. But it’s not like I really need my eyes for anything important, right?

I am all healed now, thanks to a very kind ER doctor and some antibiotic drops and a hot fudge sundae (my husband administered that last “treatment,” and I really think that’s what did the trick). And I’m rounding the bend on a draft of a novel I’ve been working on all summer. I think I have about fifty pages to go. Hold your applause, though, because this is a VERY ugly draft. It’s probably the loosest, roughest thing I’ve ever written. It’s so lumpy and bumpy, I’ve been calling it my gargoyle.

My gargoyle is very hard to love in this state. In most other cases, I have abandoned my longer work when it’s gotten ugly — and nowhere near as ugly as this. Even though I made a resolution this year that I would allow for more imperfection in my life and in my work, I keep having to convince myself not to give up. And I keep having to remind myself that while this story may be a gargoyle, it is MY gargoyle. And as its (reluctant) mama, I have a responsibility to stick around and straighten it out. So I am trying to stay strong, and patient, and open-minded. I am trying not to judge myself for my sloppiness, however temporary. I am trying to remain in love with this story, (innumerable) warts and all.

How do you other writers put up with your own early, unruly, fuggo drafts? Any helpful hints?

Happy Birthday to Moi

For most of my thirties, I hated my birthday. I suppose it’s because I wasn’t very happy with myself for most of that decade, so it’s not surprising that the one day a year that celebrates me specifically would send me into a depressive tailspin.

The worst, by far, was my thirty-ninth birthday. I’d just started my first round of chemo a few weeks before, and my body chose my birthday to be the day that my hair started falling out. I knew that day was coming (my oncologist predicted it with an eerie precision), and I thought I’d prepared for it, by having my husband shave my head pretty short. But I was still shocked when I found that first handful of stubble in my hands in the shower. The rest of the day went downhill from there.

Somewhere between my second and third chemo infusion, I started thinking about my upcoming fortieth birthday, and I realized I was really, really looking forward to it. I suppose I was looking forward to just about anything beyond the end of my chemo treatments, but in particular, I felt ready for my (big) birthday. After everything that had happened to me during my thirties, especially my late thirties, I couldn’t wait to say goodbye to that unfortunate era. I was ready to celebrate — and, in particular, I was ready to celebrate myself. Even though I was still in touch with friends through Facebook, chemo left me isolated from most in-person social interaction, so I started fantasizing about throwing an all-out bash for myself, and inviting EVERYONE: friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, doctors, nurses, etc etc. This hairless, pale, weak, immunocompromised girl was ready to par-TAY.

When my birthday did roll around, it turned out I didn’t have the means to throw myself the Gatsby-level soiree I’d imagined. But my loved ones did their very best. I went out to dinner with my family in Connecticut, then went to New York the next day with my husband, where he wined and dined me and surprised me with a relaxing spa treatment. And then we met all of my childhood friends for one of our old-school apartment parties. The next day, we went out for brunch, and when we got back to Providence, my husband took me out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, where it turned out my best friend and her husband were waiting to surprise me. It wasn’t the singular bash I’d imagined in my chemo haze, but it was a series of wonderful moments where I allowed myself to celebrate myself, and feel deserving of love.

I’ve let go of a lot of toxicity in my life over the past few years, and I suppose that’s allowed more positive energy to shine through, in both directions. Now, I feel so grateful to have the life I have, and be the person I am, and love the people I love, I can’t help celebrating EVERY DAY. My birthday is just the icing on the cake.

Thanks to everyone who made the past few days so special for me, including my husband, my son, my friends, and my family. I’d raise a glass of bubbly to you all, but I don’t think there’s any left, after all the damage I’ve done!

Paula

The first day of high school could have been the worst day of my life. But it wasn’t.

It was the fall of 1984, nearly THIRTY YEARS AGO (*gulp*). As freshmen, we were invited to pick one elective course in our schedules. I picked Creative Writing.

As it turned out, I was the ONLY freshman taking Creative Writing. This meant I knew no one in the class. This meant that the entire class, other than me, was made up of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. These upperclassmen all seemed much more sophisticated than I was…probably because they were. At least one of them had a mustache. It was a sea of Led Zeppelin t-shirts, leather jackets, perfectly-applied makeup, perfectly-feathered hair, and at least one varsity football jersey. Some of them looked old enough to teach the class themselves, though it was actually taught by Ms. Fuggazzato, also known as Ms. Lee, who didn’t have her own designated classroom, so boldly rolled her teacherly belongings around in a shopping cart.

Any one of these details would have been too much for me at the time, but all of them together were utterly terrifying. How would I ever fit in with these people, who seemed so much older and more worldly — and who all seemed to know each other? And more important, who was I going to sit with at lunch? Creative Writing was scheduled for fifth period, which was lunch period, which meant that you typically sat with your classmates. It was a foregone conclusion that no one would want to sit with me, a lowly freshman, who wore braces, and whose unruly hair only partially feathered.

These issues preoccupied me during that initial class, to the point where I didn’t pay attention to anything Ms. Fuggazzato was saying. It was only the first day of school, not even halfway through the day, and already, I was in full-on crisis mode. When the bell finally rang for lunch, I had already devised a plan where I would sneak off and eat lunch in the nearest bathroom. I was that desperate.

“Hey. Wanna sit with me at lunch?”

The question came from a girl standing at the back of the room, seemingly waiting for me as everyone else filed out. The girl was wearing a red sweater (or sweatshirt, my memory is hazy) and she had brown shoulder-length hair and bangs. She was smiling. I’d never met this girl, had never seen her before, and yet, here she was, extending an invitation to me.

I said yes. I followed her to the cafeteria, and at first, I have to admit, I wondered if she might be a weirdo. Because, in my mind, only a weirdo would invite me to sit with them. Thankfully, my instincts were dead-on, because Paula — that was her name, Paula — did turn out to be a weirdo. MY kind of weirdo. She had a quirky sense of humor, and her friends were funny and snarky, too, and she was inclusive of me from the get-go. I don’t think I could have picked a better table to lunch with if I tried. Even better, Paula made her own bag lunch, and even though it was the same sandwich every day — ham and cheese on a soft, eggy roll with pickle relish — it was a revelation to me, after many years of my mom’s half-hearted bag lunches. My mom’s sandwiches were often inscrutable, if not completely inedible (cream cheese and grape jelly on a poppy seed roll was one of her “specialties”), so I was always hungry; Paula always made sure to let me have a bite or two of hers, and they were delicious and somehow sustaining. She was generous to me in every way, and in every way I needed it most.

I recount this story because I think of Paula’s kindness every now and then. I don’t know if she ever really knew just how much her initial gesture meant to me; back then, I was probably too self-conscious to tell her outright. And I never really asked her what led her to ask me to sit with her at lunch in the first place, maybe because I assumed my panic that day was palpable, and she simply felt sorry for me.

Paula and I were friends throughout my freshman/her sophomore year (and even partnered on at least one creative writing project, a Halloween-esque short story in which we murdered all our characters in increasingly gory ways, much to Ms. Lee’s distaste) and the next, though we ended up drifting apart. But I still think of her, and her smile (and her sandwiches), and the miracle that was her appearance in my life.

Paula, you saved me, and I can’t thank you enough. I might still be eating my lunch in the bathroom (figuratively, at least), if not for you.

 

Going Nowhere

This has been my blogging routine over the past couple of months:

1. Think about blogging.

2. Think about how long it’s been since my last entry.

3. Feel guilty about it.

4. Rationalize that I have nothing important to say, anyway.

5. Open another bottle of rosé.

6. Go back to binge-watching Orange is the New Black or House of Cards.

I’ve run out of episodes of both shows, and I’d like to say I’ve run out of excuses. But I still feel as if I have nothing of substance to contribute, and that no one is really reading this, anyway. But I know I should be writing just TO WRITE and not out of any expectation of readership, so I’m going to keep at this.

Speaking of writing without an expectation of readership, I’ve been working on a manuscript for the past six months, and over the past few weeks, it seems as if I’ve hit a wall. Frankly, the story is boring me. The characters don’t seem to be saying or doing anything, and I find myself wondering why anyone would want to read about them. It’s weird, because I’ve been traveling a lot this summer, visiting with friends and having great, varied experiences, yet my fictional world is going nowhere. Finally, last week, I made the decision to set the manuscript aside. It’s not a complete tragedy; though this particular piece has stalled, I may pick it up again at some point, when I can look at it with fresh eyes. But in the meantime, I need to find a way to keep moving forward.

So I’ve gone back into my files and looked around at my other unfinished business, and lo and behold, I’ve found a story I started a few years ago and abandoned under similar circumstances. But looking at it now, it’s giving me ideas. It’s making me feel hopeful again. My goal is to finish a draft by the end of the summer — it’s a story that take place during the summer (more than one summer, actually), so this deadline feels right. As long as there are no other watchable shows on Netflix in the near future, I think I just might be okay.

What do you do when a project seems to be going nowhere? And once I’m finished with this draft, what do you think my next binge-watching experience should be?

 

Blog Stop

Hello, friends. So my pal Anika Denise invited me to be a part of a “blog hop,” a delightful arrangement where you respond to some predetermined questions, then invite a few others to do the same, and then each of them invites a few others to participate, and so on and so on. Only I couldn’t manage to get anyone else to agree to take the baton and run with it! I approached more than a few wonderful authors, but not surprisingly, most people (aside from me, apparently) are pretty busy at this time of year. So, apologies for messing up the whole lovely blog hop idea. I never want to be the one to poop on someone else’s party. But I guess the hop had to stop somewhere, right? Right??

Without further ado, here are the questions and my responses…

What am I currently working on?

Well. I’m finishing a revision of the first book in a new series I’m writing for Candlewick Press, called The Infamous Ratsos. I’m also getting ready to write the second book in the series. And I have a chapter book, two picture books, and two middle grade novels in the works. Whew!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmm…I guess I’d have to determine what my “genre” is first, since I’m kinda all over the place right now! As far as picture books go, my work tends to be a little bit more subversive than most; I like my stories to zig when you think they’re going to zag.

Why do I write what I write?

It may sound selfish, but I write stories I would want to read. I also write stories that would have comforted or tickled my childhood self. And now that I have a son, I’m channeling that “boy energy,” too. The Infamous Ratsos is about two brothers named Ralphie and Louie Ratso, who happen to be rats, who also happen to be troublemakers (or, at least, they’d like that reputation). It’s told from the bully’s perspective, and the first story is an investigation of what it means to be “tough.”

My most recent picture book, NO SLURPING, NO BURPING! A Tale of Table Manners, came to me in a different way. The publisher, Disney, was about to launch a new series of books called their Artist Showcase, where they’re pairing animators with picture book authors. The illustrator of NO SLURPING, Lorelay Bové, already knew she wanted to do a book about table manners, so Disney came to me and showed me her work and asked me if I’d be interested in contributing the text to the project. Lorelay is a genius, and an artist in the classic Disney tradition, so of course I said yes! But I also wanted to do it because I think manners are really important. I believe how we behave is a reflection of who we are, and how we want the world to perceive us. And I think that when we exhibit good manners, we’re showing respect for those around us. So it was a topic I believed in, and I was eager to put my own spin on it. I didn’t want the story to be “preachy-teachy,” with children being instructed by all-knowing adults, so I was excited to be able to flip it around, and portray the dad in the story as a bit of a bumbler, with kids who are well-mannered and (thankfully) patient with him!

No-Slurping,-No-Burping!_Jacket_5-28-13

How does my individual writing process work?

Oh, boy. I’m still figuring that one out! I have a one-year-old, and his nap schedule is in flux right now; I used to write in the mornings, but now it looks like that might have to change to evenings. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about creative work, it’s the need to be flexible!

My ideas comes to me in all sorts of ways, but in every case, I just can’t get them out of my head until I write them down. With picture books, I can usually write the first draft in one sitting (and I prefer to do it that way, to keep the idea cohesive). Then I give myself a couple of days to look at the story from different angles, to make sure it’s sound. Then I share it with my “trusted readers,” i.e. my husband and my writing group. I usually tweak it a bit more after that, and send it to my agent. From there, it’s either more tweaking, or it’s ready to send out.

With the middle grade stuff, I write a few pages a day, and at the end of each week, I take those pages to a nearby coffee shop and assess. (FYI, I’m in the coffee shop now, writing this!) I make notes in my writing journal about where I think the story is going, and jot down ideas for changes and new plot points and character development. Each month, I send pages to my writing group, and then I consider and incorporate the feedback. Compared to writing picture books, it’s a slow process, but I’m learning to trust it. Even more than flexibility, creative work requires patience!

So…that’s it from me. Any other questions? Are you an author who wants to participate in this blog hop thingie and keep it alive? Let me know!

Mean Pills

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I thought I’d tell you about a teacher to whom I’m particularly thankful.

Her name was Mrs. McPadden, and she taught fourth grade. She was not the nicest teacher in my elementary school, not by a long shot — in fact, she and another teacher used to joke about taking their “mean pills” before school each morning. Honestly, I’ve blocked out most of my memories of her class, probably due to a lingering form of PTSD. But I’ll never forget her reading.

Mrs. McPadden would read out loud to us every day, and she had a real talent for it. Really, she was doing more than reading — she performed the books for us. Through her, I discovered Blubber and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. As you can tell by her book choices, Mrs. McPadden had a bit of a subversive streak. I still remember her performance of Blubber, and how she reveled in the moment when Jill and Tracy relieve themselves on Mr. Machinist’s trees, or the moment when Linda is forced to eat the chocolate-covered ant. Mrs. McPadden came alive when she read to us, and as a result, the stories came alive.

So, thank you, Mrs. McPadden, for sharing your love of reading with me and the rest of my classmates. I can almost forgive you for the mean pills.

A Re-Education

I just got back from the New England Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators annual conference (aka NESCBWI14), and I had an AMAZING time. I met lots of wonderful new people, did some writing and plotting and journaling, ate some great food (a transcendent pulled pork sandwich) and some not-so-great food (an assemblage of beans, onions, olives, and mandarin orange slices masquerading as a Cobb salad), and enjoyed a late night boozin’ and schmoozin’ session with my colleagues.

Also, I enjoyed an eye-opening session on social media with the wise and wonderful Mitali Perkins. As a result of this digital re-education, I’ve decided to revamp my social media presence. I’ve created a Facebook page for my authorly pursuits; if you’d like to know what I’m up to in the world of children’s books and writing, I hope you’ll “like” my page. I’ll be updating it regularly with all sorts of info about my books and travels and thoughts on writing.

Now that I have this FB author page, I’m planning on restricting my FB profile to more personal pursuits and musings (and baby photos). So I’ll be doing a little bit of editing of my Friends list. I hope you’ll all understand my need to create these boundaries for myself; from here on in, I’d like to keep my profile limited to people I know, and open up my author page to anyone and everyone.

What’s up for me this week? I’ll be revising a new story I hope to send to my editor very soon, making some headway on a new section of a novel, sending some pages from that novel to my writing group for their consideration, and preparing myself for my very first Mother’s Day. Hard to believe how mega-pregnant I was last year at this time, and how not-so-little my little one is becoming!

What’s up for YOU this week? Did you attend NESCBWI14? What did you think?

Go-Go-Go!

Hello, friends. I’ve been on the go-go-go these past few weeks, but I have just enough time right now before the little one wakes up from his nap to update you on a few things…

  • Check out this article about Disney and Pixar’s Animation Studios Artist Showcase Program, which spotlights NO SLURPING, NO BURPING!
  • I’ve been Skyping up a storm, and I LOVE IT. Lately I’ve been doing 3-5 visits a week, and the teachers and librarians and kids have been amazing. The kids have such terrific questions! My favorites so far have been, “What is your neighborhood like?” “What do you do for fun?” and “Are you rich?” (That last one made me laugh out loud.) If you’re a librarian or educator and you’d like to set something up, please let me know!
  • A few weeks ago, I did a live, 40-minute reading via Google Hangouts and Qlovi, where I read from NO SLURPING, NO BURPING and UGLY FISH and talked a lot about what inspires me as I write. Also, I provide the proper pronunciation of my name, for the uninitiated. Want to take a look? The video is available on YouTube here. (Be patient. It takes a minute to load.)
  • Last week, I visited the hallowed halls of Google’s offices in Cambridge, MA and performed a reading as part of their Take Your Child to Work Day festivities. Super-fun, and my husband and little one came along for the day, so we were able to visit some of our old haunts…I even swung by Candlewick Press and said hello to my fabulous editor and many of my former colleagues! (I also enjoyed a glass of Prosecco and a croque madame for lunch, which is just about my favorite meal ever.)
  • I wrote about time management over at The Little Crooked Cottage, which has been a big issue for me lately. That time change last month really threw me for a loop. In order to get myself back on track as an early riser, I’ve been experimenting with different tweaks to my lifestyle, including eliminating processed sugar from my diet, not eating anything within a few hours of bedtime, and going to bed at 9:30 (which means I have to DVR MadMen and Game of Thrones, pure torture). That last one is the hardest. I actually had to put a reminder into my calendar that pops up at bedtime each night and says “GO TO BED RIGHT NOW, OR YOU’LL REGRET IT.”
  • In addition to all this, I’ve set up some outside writing venues for myself. On Saturdays, while my husband watches the baby, I take a few hours in the morning and write in a nearby coffee shop. And on Sunday mornings, I’ve started going next door to write at my neighbor’s house. (More on who she is and the crazy coincidence that brought us together here.) The change of scenery on the weekends really seems to help; I’ve been really productive, to the point where I’m nearly done revising a new story.
  • I’m looking forward to attending the NESCBWI conference this weekend. Will you be there? If so, hope you’ll say hi!

Snooze-a-holic

Hello, friends. The past month has been, in a word, WHOA. I’ve really, really enjoyed Skyping with classrooms, and I’ve been doing several visits a week! Last Friday, I did a live, forty-minute, virtual author reading via the fine folks at Qlovi; I’m hoping to have a YouTube video to share with you soon. I’ve been sharing a couple of posts a day about courtesy and manners on Ms. Civilized. Also, my little one is now crawling, and standing, and cruising, and is well on his way to walking, so I have my hands full (of baby).

Plus, there was that whole time change a few weeks ago, which has thrown me for a loop. It’s a lot harder for me to get up in the mornings to write, so every day is a struggle. But I have FOUR projects in the works, and they all need me! Two are my Infamous Ratsos stories (revising one, drafting the other), one is a novel, and one is a currently-indefinable something. I am excited about all of them, which makes it even more painful to hit snooze on that alarm (or even turn the alarm off altogether) in the morning.

Truth be told, I have always been a bit of a snooze-a-holic. In college, I’d drive my roommates crazy with the beeping of my alarm and the subsequent slaps of my hand on the button. But simply setting the alarm later never occurred to me. There’s something about waking up, then giving myself a few extra minutes of relaxation, that feels like the most luxurious, satisfying treat. I once had a conversation about this with my friend Jeff, who passed away last year. He shared my snooze addiction, and he articulated the pleasure of it in his own inimitable style: “Giving myself those extra few minutes of snooze is like a little cherry pie that is fun to eat.”

Do you get up early to write (or otherwise claim some time for yourself)? If so, how do you avoid hitting snooze? Inquiring (and exhausted) minds want to know!

 

Book Birthday!

No-Slurping,-No-Burping!_Jacket_5-28-13

Hooray! Today is the pub day of my latest book, No Slurping, No Burping! A Tale of Table Manners!

I haven’t had a book birthday in a while, so today is particularly special. Here’s what I’ll be doing to honor the occasion:

I’m offering free signed bookplates to anyone who buys my book(s)! Just email me your address along with a photo of the book(s) you’ve bought, and I’ll send you the bookplates!

Do you know how to set the table? If not, take a look at my handy place-setting diagram. Print it out, color it in, and stick it on your fridge — you’ll always have a guide handy at dinnertime!

Want me to visit your library or classroom via Skype or FaceTime? I’m available for free 20-minute visits between 1:30-2:30pm EST (i.e. when my little one naps). I’ll read one of my books (you choose) and will answer any and all questions — about writing, table manners, publishing, wrangling a giant baby, et al. Contact me and we’ll work out the details.

If you’re in Little Rhody this weekend, stop by my book launch party at Barrington Books on Sunday, March 9th at 11:30!

Happy reading!

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