That moment.

One of my favorite movies is Julie & Julia. Not just because it’s about cooking, or because it was written and directed by the transcendent Nora Ephron, or because it stars Queen Meryl Streep. I love it because it’s about writing, and specifically, about the arduous process of writing (and rewriting) a book you love, and then trying (and trying, and trying) to get it published. I love just about every scene in the movie, but the one that brings me to tears every time is the last one: Julia is cooking in her kitchen when Paul brings in the mail and hands her a package. She opens it, and inside is a finished copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You can see how choked up she gets, and then she and Paul laugh with joy.

You can therefore imagine my reaction when this arrived a few days ago:

 

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Yes, it’s a finished copy of The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina. This book took years, and more effort than anyone will ever know.

I talk a lot about the craft of writing here, and the process of publishing, and the not-always-skyward trajectory of this author’s career. But I would like to take this moment to celebrate what just might be the very best part of it all, when your “baby” is finally born, and you get to hold it in your arms. It is a feeling like no other. Truly, I weep, with relief and with joy.

And then, as ever, I get back to writing.

Naming Names

An idea for a story is a little, crackling miracle. But you have to do something with it, sooner rather than later, before it flames out. For me, the next step in story development is to pick my protagonist’s name. For me, naming the main character (or characters) brings them and the story into  existence.

I have a thing for names. My own name has been a source of frustration for me, for as long as I can remember — it’s hard for people to spell and to pronounce. Because of this, I’ve become obsessed with remembering names and their proper spellings and pronunciations, and this has led me to an interest in names in general. And finding just the right name for a character gives me a singular thrill — it’s as if that perfect match lights a figurative match to my idea.

When I envisioned a story about a boy obsessed with cars…of course, his name needed to be Otto.

A story about a lonely porcupine? Well, hello there, Mr. Prickles.

A story about table manners illustrated in a retro style, featuring two well-mannered children? Welcome, Evie and Simon.

When I first conceived of the story that would become THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, I knew I wanted my characters to be loosely based on my grandfather and his brother, Ralph and Louis Rizzo, so I knew they would be boys named Ralphie and Louie. Then I recalled the character of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, and voila! I not only had the last name Ratso — that name inspired me to make the characters rats. As for the other characters, I hope you can tell how much fun I had naming Florinda “Fluffy” Rabbitski, Chad Badgerton, and Tiny Crawley, as well as the grownups — Big Lou, Miss Beavers, Mr. O’Hare, and my personal favorite, Mrs. Porcupini. The animal characters in THE INFAMOUS RATSOS are much more anthropomorphized than anything I’ve ever written before, so their names had to be the right combination of human and animal (and funny). I like to think I got them just right.

With the protagonists of my upcoming middle grade series, The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, I couldn’t find human names that seemed boring enough, so I started thinking about non-human names. I knew I wanted a “J” name and a “K” name, so it didn’t take long for me to hit on Jaundice and Kale, and then I was on my way. Those names really set the absurd tone of the story. Some of the other character names are an homage to Herman Melville’s work — Princess “Kwee-Kweg” is a riff on Queequeg from Moby Dick, Millie Mudd references Billy Budd, and Mr. Bartleby the mail carrier is an allusion to the story “Bartleby the Scrivener.”And of course, the mysterious pirate Captain Ann Tennille is a wink to this throwback. (Most of my Bland Sisters jokes — name-related or otherwise — are for kids, but every once in a while, I like to throw out a little funny for the grownups. More to come on this mix of humor.)

What are some of your favorite character names?

 

 

 

Falling Behind

I’m the kind of person who likes to deliver ahead of schedule, so you can imagine how I feel about falling behind in my work. But that’s where I am now. A combination of unforeseen (though totally necessary) additional rounds of revision on two projects and a nasty bout of pneumonia has left me with a lengthy To-Do list and an abiding feeling of panic and dread.

The way I see it, the more work I have ready to send out, the more potential earnings I have coming in. Stagnation = starvation. And I’ve told you all about my mantra; anything or anyone that might get in the way of “making it happen” (even myself) is intolerable to me. So the state I’m in right now is excruciating.

But, you know, everything is a lesson. Being a creative person — or any person with any kind of life goal, really — requires hard work and determination and perseverance, but it also requires resilience. So I’m learning from this less-than-ideal experience, figuring out just how I’m going to regroup, and trying to work out a new schedule that accommodates my past-due projects and some new deadlines on the horizon. Through it all, I keep reminding myself that all I can do is my best. That’s all we can ever do, right?

 

 

Making It Happen

Hello, friends. So, as I mentioned on Monday, I ended up taking a vacation last month, and then getting a terrible cold on said vacation. Because I can never leave well enough (or sick enough) alone, my cold morphed into viral bronchitis, which then morphed into pneumonia. I just started taking antibiotics — fingers crossed that they clear things up FAST.

Unfortunately, my revision of the second Bland Sisters story was due last month, when my bronchitis was at its worst; while my wonderful editor did give me a few extra days beyond my original deadline, I still felt awful and foggy-headed, AND it turned out that my husband was away for the whole weekend prior to my revised due date. I ended up hiring a babysitter for the duration, locked myself in the bedroom with my laptop and a big box of tissues, and got to work.

This is not to say I didn’t take care of myself. I ate lots of soup and applesauce, and took naps whenever I could. Also, I stopped caring about the fact that the house was messy, or that I never really unpacked our suitcases from our trip, or that I was basically living in my pajamas. BUT. I also knew I had a job to do, and that job was writing. So I summoned all the physical and mental strength I had, and I made it happen.

Many (many!) years ago, I ran for Student Council President in high school. My slate’s slogan was “We won’t just watch things happen — we’ll make things happen.” Since then, “make it happen” has been my mantra. It’s what I say when I really want something. It’s what I say when I’m facing any kind of adversity. It’s why I get frustrated when I encounter people who live passively, as if they’re sitting by a river, waiting for whatever they want to float by. Sorry, friends, it doesn’t work that way. Not only do you have to jump in, you have to be willing to swim against the current. You have to be willing to get swept away. You have to know you’re going to get knocked down, over and over and over again, and still get back up each and every time. Sometimes, you’ll get back up and realize your bathing suit is missing and feel like everyone is laughing at you. Sometimes, the water will feel SO COLD and it will get into your lungs and you’ll start coughing and sputtering and feel like you’re maybe drowning. But still, even then.

Come on in, friends. The water’s fine. (Well, it seems fine now. But if and when it isn’t, you’re strong and you’re ready and your bathing suit is securely fastened.) Let’s make it happen.

Travels with Shame and Inadequacy

Last fall, as I was drafting the second book in the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters trilogy, I read BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Go get yourself a copy RIGHT NOW. I’ll wait.)

BIG MAGIC is tremendously inspiring and comforting, as it looks at the creative process from an almost spiritual point of view. On at least one occasion, Elizabeth Gilbert name-checks Brené Brown, so when I finished the book, I decided to check her out. Boy, am I glad I did.

Brené Brown is a researcher, educator, and public speaker who specializes in topics of shame and inadequacy. Those two have been my jam (and by “jam” I mean “bane of my existence”) for as long as I can remember, so Brené has become like my brilliant, golden, straight-talkin’ angel.

In particular, I’ve read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly. Though the first deals primarily with shame, the second with imperfection and inadequacy, and the third with vulnerability and courage (i.e. how shame and our fears of inadequacy and imperfection hamper our ability to be emotionally vulnerable/courageous), all of these issues are so intertwined that it helps to read all three back-to-back. They are The Lord of the Rings of emotional healing.

I’ve also watched both of Brené Brown’s TED talks on the power of vulnerability and listening to shame, which are among the most popular talks TED has produced. And they’re not specifically for artists, so even if you don’t consider yourself a creative person, please watch them. Because, unfortunately, shame and inadequacy are equal-opportunity tormentors.

Of course, I still struggle, and I probably always will. When you’ve been conditioned to feel that what other people think of you is more important than what you think about yourself, that failing or being imperfect (or even just making choices that don’t meet someone else’s standards) makes you a bad/unlovable/inadequate/shameful person, and that vulnerability is weakness, life (and especially a creative life) can seem joyless, if not completely impossible. I’m grateful I’ve been able to refresh my perspective, whether as a byproduct of trauma (losing my job, being diagnosed with cancer, losing loved ones) or in more benign ways (surrounding myself with supportive friends, seeking therapy, and discovering wise teachers like Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown). But those negative emotions will always be a part of me. I can only do what Elizabeth Gilbert advises, regarding fear — the feelings of shame and inadequacy might always be in the car with me, but I can’t allow them to drive.

I do have a lot more to say about the emotional side of writing, and the topics of shame and inadequacy and emotional vulnerability/courage in particular; how I deal with them, and how, sometimes, I can’t. In some ways, it’s seemed a bit off-topic (the self-imposed topic being “craft”), but it really is an intrinsic part of my creative process, as much as research and drafting and revision might be. So, do you want to hear more? If so, I am happy to oblige.

 

Host Your Own INFAMOUS RATSOS Party!

Hello, friends. So, after I posted about last Saturday’s INFAMOUS RATSOS launch party, with the photos of all the goodies I made, I wondered, would anyone be interested in the recipes and instructions?

And then I thought, maybe classrooms and book clubs might want to host their own Infamous parties, where they could talk about the book together, enjoy yummy treats, and make some Kindness Cards for those who might be in need of a pick-me-up — a senior center, for instance, or a children’s hospital. Wouldn’t that be the best thing EVER?

Well, whatever your interest might be, here are all the recipes, and all the instructions for creating all of the activities. Let me know if you have any questions — and of course, if you DO have a party based on my stuff, take some photos and send them to me! Even better — post them online with the hashtag #theinfamousratsos!

Without further ado, let’s get this party started!

TREATS:

Mr. Porcupini’s Prickly Pickle Dip

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Illustration from THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, copyright 2016 by Matt Myers.

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon of fresh dill

1/3c diced dill pickle

5 tablespoons dill pickle juice

2 8oz packages of cream cheese, softened

1 bag of pretzel sticks

Instructions:

Put the dill, pickle, pickle juice, and cream cheese in a bowl. Mix until fully blended. Refrigerate for a few hours, to allow the flavors to mingle.

When ready to serve, garnish bowl with pretzel sticks to resemble a porcupine!

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Mr. O’Hare’s Mini Carrot Cake Cheesecake Cupcakes

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Illustration from THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, copyright 2016 by Matt Myers.

makes 48

Ingredients:

1 box of carrot cake mix, prepared accordingly

2 8oz packages of cream cheese, room temperature

2 eggs, room temperature

1/4 cup sour cream, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Prepare carrot cake mix.

In a separate bowl, blend all other ingredients together.

Using a teaspoon, fill each mini cupcake tin halfway with carrot cake mix (I used mini cupcake liners; if preferred, you can go without and spray the tins, but I can’t promise they’ll pop out easily!). Finish with a dollop (teaspoon full) of cheesecake mixture.

Bake for 20-20 minutes (check oven regularly) until the cheesecake topping just starts to brown on the edges.

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Tiny Crawley’s Tiny Chocolate Chippers

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Illustration from THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, copyright 2016 by Matt Myers.

Makes 50 cookies

Ingredients:

1 box of chocolate chip cookie mix (I swear by Ghirardelli’s), prepared according to box

Instructions:

Using a teaspoon (teaspoon should be half-full of cookie dough each time), drop onto cookie sheets (I line with parchment paper), then roll each into a ball.

Bake at 325 for 10-12 minutes (ovens may vary).

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Fluffy Rabbitski’s Carrots in a Blanket

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Illustration from THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, copyright 2016 by Matt Myers.

 

Ingredients:

2 sheets of puff pastry, thawed according to instructions

24 baby carrots

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon of olive oil

salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Toss carrots in olive oil, dill, salt, and pepper. Spread out on baking sheet, and bake for 20-30 minutes until roasted and a bit soft.
  3. Open up pastry, cut each sheet into 12 pieces. (Make sure each piece is long enough to roll up the carrot, but narrow enough that a little bit of carrot pokes out at each end.)
  4. Roll up one carrot in each pastry strip. Dab a bit of water on the end of the pastry strip to seal. Place each wrapped carrot seam-side down on baking sheet (line sheet with parchment paper).
  5. Bake 15-20 minutes, until crisp and golden.
  6. Serve with honey mustard, your favorite dressing, or on their own!

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Big Lou’s Big Ole Fruit Platter and Louie and Ralphie’s Easy Cheeses

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Illustration from THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, copyright 2016 by Matt Myers.

Each serves 15

Ingredients:

Fruit (whatever you prefer, but be sure to include strawberries and grapes), cut into bite-sized pieces

3-4 different blocks of cheese (varieties up to you), cubed

An assortment of crackers

Instructions:

Arrange separately or together on one platter, as one big happy family! Garnish with strawberries and grapes.

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STAGING THE FOOD:

Be creative! As an example, you can see how I set everything up below. Download, print, cut out, and fold these party food labels to let your guests know just what treats you’re serving!IMG_1263

ACTIVITIES:

Photo Booth Fun

In the interest of time, I ended up buying all my props from Amazon, but if you’re feeling particularly creative, you can make your own!

You’ll need:

Masks (I bought 2 of these and 2 of these)

Signs (I used 12 of these chalkboard signs, and wrote on them with these chalkboard paint markers)

A backdrop (the bookstore provided one for me, but you can make your own with a white sheet or large piece of posterboard, decorated any way you like)

Preparation:

Write some sayings from the book on the signs — I wrote HANG TOUGH, GAME ON!, INFAMOUSLY NICE, INFAMOUSLY HELPFUL, INFAMOUSLY GENEROUS, and INFAMOUSLY THOUGHTFUL on mine.

Time to pose! Make sure everyone tags their photos with #theinfamousratsos before posting!

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My friends and I, playing with the photo booth props. Say CHEESE!

 

Match Game

A fun little activity for younger guests, using this downloadable sheet. Make a copy for each of your guests, then provide  markers or crayons so you can all color them in and draw lines between the Ratsos’ pranks and their (ultimately-grateful!) victims.

Kindness Card

A lovely project to decorate and give to someone (a parent? a sibling? a neighbor? a teacher? a friend?) who might need a little extra kindness. These cards can be used on their own as sweet tokens, of course, but they’re also great to give along with baked goods, little gifts, or other kind gestures (snow shoveling, yard work, chores around the house, etc). You could even choose a worthy cause before your INFAMOUS RATSOS party (such as a senior center or children’s hospital) and have everyone make the cards while they eat the treats you’ve prepared.

You can download the cards here, then just cut each sheet in half and fold each like a card. Provide some crayons, markers, stickers, glitter, etc etc, and your guests can decorate however they like. Don’t forget to address and sign them! Use your imagination and Be Kind!

Whew! That’s it. Hope this was helpful. FYI, I’ll put all of this up on a designated INFAMOUS RATSOS Pinterest board next week when I have some more time, so it’s easy to access.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adding the Eggs

So, I’ve been given a month (!!!) to revise my novel, the second in the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters trilogy. Like everyone else, I get tense and sweaty when faced with the prospect of revision. But when I’m doing it, it actually seems kind of…fun?

I do hate the first read of editorial comments, where it all feels so overwhelming and potentially impossible. As Kate DiCamillo has said of the editorial process (which I tried not to take too personally!), “It feels like I’ve already baked a cake, and now you want me to add eggs!” To assuage this feeling, I set aside the editorial comments once I’ve finished reading them. This cooling-off period is crucial, because A.) I need this time to CALM DOWN, and B.) it’s at this time, when I’m not writing or even thinking about writing, that my brain comes up with the best ideas. I make sure to write down any and all of them in my journal.

Once I feel as if I have a refreshed outlook and some innovations, I review the editorial comments again and break them down into tasks. And then I read through the manuscript again, with those tasks in mind. This is where it seems like a game (or where I’ve somehow convinced myself that it’s a game!), where my goal is to find just the right places to incorporate the editorial suggestions. After I’ve reviewed the manuscript and made all my notes re: where to cut and change and insert text, I go through the whole thing again, chapter by chapter, and get to work.

I know I mention Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird all the time, but it really has been an indispensable writing and revising tool for me. I tend to get easily overwhelmed and discouraged, so dividing the work down into bite-sized tasks is the only way I can get through a project, in writing and in life.

All righty, then. I should get back to revising. Wish me luck — I have a week and a half to go!