Archive for the ‘How I Write’ Category

Whose book is it, anyway?

November 13, 2015

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Abel and Beatrice are best friends and neighbors. Abel grows apples. Beatrice raises bees. They get along perfectly – until a sting and a misunderstanding escalate into a feud.

That’s the premise of my picture book, BEES IN THE TREES, which Scholastic Press has scheduled for release in Spring 2017, with illustrations by the wonderful Blanca Gomez.

When I first conceived of the story, more than 20 years ago, I sketched cartoons of my characters. Abel was as roly-poly as an apple, with my dad’s male-pattern baldness and glasses, and an unlikely bow tie. Beatrice was brittle, with pointy features and a penchant for wearing stripes.

My words don’t mention either Abel or Beatrice’s appearance. The way they look doesn’t figure in the story, and in a picture book, you can’t spare any unnecessary words. But those early sketches stuck in my mind. Through draft after draft, revision after revision and decade after decade, as I have been waiting for an artist to give my characters life, I have pictured roly-poly Abel and brittle Beatrice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently saw Blanca Gomez’s first sketches for the book, and discovered that all this time I’ve picturing Abel and Beatrice wrong. He is actually a skittery mouse, and she is a roly-poly bear.

But wait! Some of you may be thinking. Can she do that? Isn’t it your story? If you had wanted them to be a mouse and a bear, wouldn’t you have said so? And shouldn’t she have at least asked your permission?

To which I say, yes, maybe, and no.

I started the story with my words, but it won’t be complete until her pictures are. And the finished book will be a marriage of my words and her pictures that will belong to her as much as it belongs to me. That’s the contract a picture book writer makes in her mind when she sets down her first sentence – if an artist will agree to turn my words into pictures, I will give her a half share in the story’s creation.

This process of sharing begins when the picture book writer decides which details to spell out, and which to leave for the illustrator to fill in. My mental picture of Abel and Beatrice had nothing to do with the story. So I saved my words for the essentials.

The sharing process continues when an editor gets involved. My original manuscript included several sentences listing various pieces of junk. Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, suggested leaving those out, to give the artist freer reign. The advice made sense to me. I didn’t want to hamstring the artist. And at that point in the story would have a stronger impact if it had fewer words, and gave the reader time to quietly study the details in the picture and maybe list them aloud herself.

As Blanca’s art takes further shape, the sharing process will move into yet another phase. I’ll undoubtedly discover more truths about my story, and Tracy is likely to make more editorial suggestions to make a more perfect union between the pictures and the words.

And the sharing process won’t end there. Once BEES IN THE TREES has become a real book and readers get their hands on it, they will also share in the story’s creation. Each time a parent reads Abel’s dialogue in a special funny voice and Beatrice’s in another – each time a child searches out a certain detail on a certain page – each time the book makes someone think about apples and bees and friends and feuds – the story will become theirs as well.

And that’s the whole point of writing a picture book.

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Ten Books

August 20, 2014

 

Books

A friend tagged me on Facebook to list 10 books that had had an impact on my life. Or words to that effect. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my answer. I just stood in front of my book shelves and noted the titles that resonated the most. Then I narrowed the list down from 20 to 10. Here are the ones I choose, and why.

 

Time of Wonder (Robert McCloskey)

Of course I love Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Homer Price and the Donut Machine. But none of them got inside me that way this gem did – in large part, I think, because of the way my mother read it to me. I could tell that she loved it, and implicitly understood why: the sound of the language, the wild New England coast, the reverent attention to the sounds and sights that signal shifts in the weather, and in the season. This book is one of the main reasons I write picture books. It’s also the reason so many of the texts that are closest to my heart meet with rejection, always on the grounds that they’re too “quiet.”

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Before I could read, I pored over Garth Williams’ illustrations. When I learned to read, I learned to seek out any book in my school library that was illustrated by Williams. He was instantly recognizable, and never steered me wrong. I had a hard time choosing among the many Williams-illustrated books that I loved, but in the end this it was a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Fern’s courageous defense the runt of the litter? Templeton the Rat’s relish of discarded fair food? Wilbur’s hopeful innocence? And then there’s Charlotte. I have re-read this book more times than I can count, and have never failed to weep at the ending. “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s what I want them to write on my grave.

 

Animal Family (Randall Jarrell)

Love makes a family. I learned that lesson from this lovely fairy tale about the love between a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and a little boy. It’s a lovely story, and also a lovely book, from poet Jarrell’s mesmerizing language, to Maurice Sendak’s lush “decorations,” to the thick, soft paper the pages are printed on and the size and weight of the volume. This is my sister Rachel’s book, but at some point I absconded with it. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Required reading for 14-year-old aspiring Dead Heads in 1971. Nuff said.

World According to Garp (John Irving)

When I was a student at Hampshire College, Irving was teaching writing up the road, at Mt Holyoke. In my freshman year I took his writing workshop, and in my junior year I did an independent study with him. I would have tried to study with him my sophomore year, too, if he hadn’t been on leave, writing Garp. It’s not my favorite book in the world, but of the various writers I studied with, Irving was hands-down the most encouraging.

 

Machine Dreams (Jayne Anne Phillips)

Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Pigeon Feathers (John Updike)

Family relationships. Complicated characters. Resonant descriptive details. Utterly absorbing. I read all of these just after college, when I was trying to figure out how to keep writing while holding down a day job. When I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll sometimes pick up one of my favorite books and read a few sentences, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do, and why. These three are among those I go to most often.

 

Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schultz)

Isaac Bashevis Singer on acid. That big book of mine that’s still searching for a home might be described as a conversation between Schultz and the three writers above.

Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)

How a book hits you is all in the timing. I started reading this maybe a month before my mother died, and finished it maybe a month after. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a dense read — a personal search for the arcane origins of the Jewish mourners’ prayer. Kaddish was to my 42-year-old self what Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to me at 14.

 

What are your 10?

Picture This

February 11, 2014

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When I tell people that I write picture books, the conversation often goes something like this.

— Do you do the pictures, too?

— Nope. Just the words.

— Huh. Well, do you get to decide who does them?

— No. That’s up to the editor.

— Really! But doesn’t it bother you to give up control like that? What if they’re not like what you had in mind?

— With any luck, they’ll be better.

Okay. I never have actually said that last line. But now that I’ve thought of it, maybe I will.

Because here’s the thing. I like looking at art, and when I write a picture book, I absolutely see pictures in my head. I see color and mood and composition. Does it fill just one page, or spill across a whole spread? Is what’s happening sufficiently different from what happened on the last page, and what will happen on the page that comes next?

I know that someone else will produce the art that accompanies my words. But if I didn’t imagine pictures to go with them, I couldn’t write a successful picture book.

Without some idea of the images’ color and mood, I couldn’t calibrate the tone of my language – is it funny? Quiet? Suspenseful? Factual?  Fantastic?

If I didn’t imagine some sort of composition, I couldn’t keep track of point of view – who’s telling the story? What does the narrator know? What does the reader know (through the picture) that the narrator doesn’t know, or doesn’t tell? Which details do I need to include, and which will the pictures convey?

Knowing whether a picture will fit on one page or spill across two is crucial for pacing. Should the story slow down here, or speed up? Should the page-by-page tempo be steady, or varied?

Finally, if I don’t have some idea of what each picture will show, I risk writing a story that doesn’t leave room for enough visual variety to hold the reader’s interest.

Back in when I was starting out, I used to make dummies of the picture books I was writing. I would take eight sheets of typing paper, fold them in half, and nest one inside the other to make a miniature book. I would write the title on the “cover,” paste the words onto their proper pages, and draw the pictures I imagined accompanying them.

It was a fun project. But it didn’t take me long to realize that for my purposes, a flat, comic-style storyboard worked as well as a 3D model of the book, and that the pictures I managed to produce were a far cry from the ones I imagined.

It’s not just a question of technical execution – although that’s huge. It’s also a matter of insight. Sure I see pictures when I write. But in the end, they’re secondary to the words I hear. Bringing a visual artist into a project means putting my words in the hands of someone whose whole job is to make the imagined visible, and to visualize images I couldn’t have imagined.

Do I envy those talented souls who can do both? You bet.

Do I worry as I wait to find out what the pictures will look like? Of course.  But writing picture books is an act of faith – and an exercise in ceding control. Once an illustrator takes on a project, it becomes as much hers as mine. Her vision carries as much weight as mine. And while her pictures wouldn’t exist without my words, my words could never fly without her pictures.

That’s what I’m thinking about as I await word on who will illustrate my next picture book. It’s exciting and excruciating. And I’ll let you know who it is as soon I know.

Both Sides Now

December 4, 2013

both waysSometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.

Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.

Sometimes I’m a children’s book author; sometimes I write for adults. I never set out to be one thing or the other, or to be both things at once. It just happened that way. And it works for me.

Writing picture books satisfies the part of my brain that loves listening to language, enjoys the elegance of concision, and gets off on the marriage of words with images (although I don’t do my own artwork). Writing for grown-ups lets me spend longer on and delve more deeply into a topic, write about issues that kids couldn’t care less about, and use a wider vocabulary (with bigger words as well as ones with four letters.) And switching back and forth between picture books and adult fiction helps me stay energized and interested.

Back when I was writing my second cockroach reader, I was also spinning cynical, sexy stories for Seven Days, and composing the occasional sermon to deliver at my synagogue. I would sit down at my desk and have to ask myself, “Which of my voices am I supposed to be using today?”

My writing life is saner these days. I’ll spend a month or more in one genre before switching to the other. But thanks to social media, my writing persona is much more public than it was in the old century. And with a new picture book under contract – for the first time in more than ten years – I find myself taking stock of how I show myself to the world.

On this blog, I have felt free to talk about everything, from therapeutic bloodletting to prayers without God to my collection of disembodied doll parts and the recipe for perfect latkes. Those themes are fitting for Ruth Horowitz, the former Seven Days writer, who has written a novel for adults that deals with sex and religion and grief. But are they the right topics for a children’s book author? What are the rules here? Are there rules?

And what about the business side of being a writer? I’ve always seen this blog as a place to have a conversation with the world — not as a showcase for my books. But with a new children’s book on the way (and with luck more to come) self-promotion has become part of my job.

What to do?

One thing I’ve done is set up a new website: Ruth Horowitz, Children’s Author. It showcases my kid’s books in a kid-friendly, easy-to-navigate environment. My plan is to continue posting here as I have been, including updates on my life as a children’s book author. But if you just want to kids’ stuff, you can find it at ruthhorowitz.com. And while you’re over there, why not pick up one of my books?

Second Thoughts

September 7, 2013

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A funny thing happened to me on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This is not, typically, a day I relish. I have already done the first day. I’ve admired the Torah scrolls and the clergy in their white regalia. I have grooved on the special melodies and savored the once-a-year prayers. I’ve dipped my apple in honey and shared the festive meal with friends.

Enough already! Who has time to go through it all over again? I have work to do.

This year, I’ve got a new writing project that’s just starting to gel. At its core is a mother who has become estranged from her grown son. I don’t know what came between them, or what the separation means to him. I just know that her heartbreak drives her to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do. How can I figure out where this is going when these holidays keep interfering with my work schedule?

But I had agreed to help out at the second-day service. And even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have felt right staying home. And so back to synagogue I went, to repeat exactly the same experience I’d had the day before.

Except it wasn’t the exactly the same.

For one thing, on the first day I’d been upstairs in the beautiful main sanctuary, with the senior rabbi and the cantor, accompanied by a professional chorus. On the second day I was downstairs in the not-so-pretty social hall, with the junior rabbi and my friend Hinda, who is a cantor-in-training. Different room, different people. But even if they’d been the same, it would have been different.

Rituals are like rivers—you can’t step in the same one twice.

The Rosh Hashanah service lasts about four hours. The funny thing happened to me in the last hour, around the point where I’d started flipping forward in the prayer book to see how much more I had to endure. I was tired of standing and more than ready for lunch. We had reached the remembrance section of the shofar service – readings and songs leading up to the blasts of the ram’s horn.

On the first day, I’d been riveted in anticipation. Today the shofar was yesterday’s news. I was spacing out, letting the music wash over me, when a new melody snagged my attention. The tune was so sad and lovely. And Hinda sang it so dearly, tenderly embracing each word. My Hebrew is spotty at best, but I understood “Ephraim” – the name of someone’s child. I glanced down at the English.

Is not Ephraim my precious son, my beloved child? Even when I reproach him, I remember him with tenderness. My heart yearns for him. Surely I shall show him mercy, says the Lord.

The words took my breath away. That was my character speaking, the one whose story I’ve been trying to figure out. They’re not her exact words, but they express perfectly the core of her heartbreak.

They’re the words of a parent who can’t give up on a child, can’t stop hoping he’ll return, no matter how far he has strayed or how long he’s been gone or how unlikely it is that he’ll come back. On a more mundane scale, they’re the words of any parent who has ever longed to comfort her child even as she metes out the punishment he justly deserves. The poignancy moved me to tears.

Later, when I tried to explain the moment to my husband, I realized I wasn’t actually certain who Ephraim was, or what he had done that was so bad. So I did some research.

Turns out Ephraim is the second son of Joseph. In Genesis, Joseph brings him and his older brother Manasseh to their blind grandfather Jacob to be blessed. When Jacob puts his hand on the head of second-born Ephraim and begins reciting the blessing for the first-born, Joseph tries to move his father’s hand to Manasseh’s head. But Jacob insists he knows what he’s doing — while Manasseh will be great, Ephraim will be greater.

As Sabbath begins on Friday night, parents traditionally bless their children. The formula for sons is, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

The verse from the shofar service comes from the prophet Jeremiah, generations after Genesis. “Ephraim” refers to Ephraim’s descendants, who separated themselves from the rest of Israel. In later years, “Ephraim” was understood as all Jews living in exile—a tragedy that was seen as divine punishment for the people’s sins. Reading the verse today, on Rosh Hashanah, casts “Ephraim” as  a metaphor for the individual embarking on the annual road to repentance.

Jeremiah’s message is meant to console and encourage. No matter how far you have strayed, the prophet says, God loves you like a good parent, and is rooting for you to come around. The message is so central to Rosh Hashanah that on the second day of the holiday it appears not only during the shofar service, but also at the end of a much longer excerpt from Jeremiah read during the first hour of services.

For years, I have been coming to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Every year I have heard that verse not once, but twice. And yet, this year was the first time I really heard it. But not in the way Jeremiah or the rabbis who constructed the high holiday services intended.

Does that mean I got it wrong? I don’t think so.

The point of Rosh Hashanah is to encourage us to try to be better people. In the words of the prayer book, that’s called returning to God. For me, it means nurturing within myself those same good qualities traditional Judaism ascribes to God. Seen through that lens, the verse about Ephraim becomes a model for forgiveness. It’s a reminder that everyone – the jerk who cut me off on the highway, the voter who supported the wrong candidate, the editor who doesn’t appreciate my writing – was once someone’s beloved child.

What’s true in life also holds when it comes to writing. When I get back to working on my story, I’ll see what would happen if I made the son the protagonist. In life and in fiction, one of the best ways to understand a situation is to picture it from the other guy’s point of view.

Nursing My Diagnosis

May 9, 2013

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“Are you writing this down?” my mother used to say, when I described something strange and irksome that had happened to me. My husband has since picked up the chorus. And when another writer tells me about some disagreeable experience, I have been known to say, “It’s all material.”

I have been using this line on myself a lot lately, since I received the surprise of my bizarre diagnosis. It’s been a lot to deal with, physically and emotionally. But it also offers a lot of material.

For example, phlebotomists and nurses. I have been spending a lot of time with both, the phlebotomists as they draw relatively small amounts of my blood for lab tests, and the nurses as they draw a pint each week—standard treatment for my condition. Because I want to distract myself from those unpleasant needles, I like to talk during these procedures. And because as a writer I’m always eager to poke my nose in other people’s business, I mine these moments for whatever slices of human drama or character-defining details I’m able to extract. Because who knows when I might be able to use them?

So far, I have filed away:

–The nurse who claims, as she’s sticking me for my very first blood drawing, that she’s afraid of needles.

–The nurse whose husband complains that she spends too much on the novelty cakes she bakes for her friends’ celebrations.

–The two nurses at the office where they put in my PICC Line. One at my head and one at my feet, they roll my gurney to the operating room, a route that takes us down narrow hallways, around tight corners and through just-wide-enough doors. Throughout the journey, they gossip as if I’m not there—only, because I am, they talk around all the actual content.

“I’m not surprised she didn’t come back,” says the nurse at my head.

“Yeah? How come?” asks the nurse at my feet.

“Because remember what happened?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Right?”

“Right.”

“Sounds like a great story,” I pipe up from my prone position. “Wish I could hear the details.”

I’m not trying to scold them; I really do want to hear more. But they shut up.

–The nurse who comes to my home to change the dressing on my PICC line, dropping by on Saturday afternoon, between one son’s karate class and another son’s violin lesson. She’s a slight, sweet-faced woman, who talks to me tenderly and handles my wounded arm as gently as anyone has ever handled any part of me.

When I tell her that my condition is interfering with my running, she says, “You should take up kickboxing. I love it.”

“What do you love about it?” I ask.

“It’s a perfect workout,” she says. “Cardio and strength-training combined. Plus you get to hit people and you don’t get in trouble.”

–The phlebotomist in Boston who plays Gospel music and never cracks a smile. When I ask her to spare my big veins for my next blood-letting, she says, “If you’re doing this for the long-term they’ll probably put in a port, anyway.”

–The phlebotomist in Providence who smiles constantly. When I ask her to spare my big veins for my next blood-letting, she nods sympathetically.

“I’ll just use a butterfly,” she says.

As the tube fills, she says she likes the way my purple cardigan looks with my yellow t-shirt. “I wouldn’t have thought of putting those colors together, but it works!” she says. “I’m always wearing purple with green. My husband says they don’t go, but I like them.”

“They’re Mardi Gras colors,” I tell her. “It’s your inner party girl coming out.”

–The highly competent nurse who has been drawing a pint of my blood each week for the last three weeks, and who I hope will draw all my pints forevermore. She is kind, careful, competent, and so relentlessly serious that I feel compelled to make wisecracks, and chalk up a personal victory each time she cracks a smile.

“That’s where my garden attacked me,” I tell her as we survey my inner arms on my third visit.

Her face lights up. “You garden?” she asks. “Flowers or vegetables?”

I tell her about my salad greens and radishes, and she talks about her raised beds, her kale that wintered over, the volunteer arugula that sprouts in her compost, her favorite heirloom tomatoes, and this year’s asparagus.

“The first time I saw asparagus growing I thought it was a joke,” I say. “It’s like a kid’s drawing of how vegetables grow.”

“I know,” she says, laughing. “Right?”


The Insomniac’s Approach To Productivity

November 14, 2012

Rule Number One when you’re trying to be productive: eliminate the distractions. Hence the gap between my last post and this one. I have actually been writing—yet another picture book, and a short story for grown-ups.

I’m hardly the first person to notice what a time-sucking addiction the miracle that is the internet can be. But noticing isn’t the same as acting. That’s why they call it addiction.

Here’s how it worked (or didn’t work) for me. Every morning, after breakfast and exercise and shower, and then maybe a little more of this and that, I would open my laptop, which was usually still in beside the living room couch, where I’d left it the night before.

First, I would check my email. Then I’d hop over to Facebook. And then, of course, I had to catch up with Mark Trail and Rex Morgan, because the Providence Journal doesn’t carry those comics. And then I would check the stats on my blog. And then I might follow Twitter for a while. And then I would try to do the Times crossword puzzle online. And then I might allow myself a round of mah jong solitaire. Just one. Unless, of course, it ended too soon. In which case I’d allow myself another. I should also mention keeping up with the various blogs I subscribe to. Oh, and how could I forget my endless rounds of multiple Words With Friends games?

Anyway, eventually I would carry the laptop upstairs to my desk, and sit down to write. But I would keep my email and Facebook and maybe even Twitter open, and the minute something new came in, or I got a tiny bit frustrated, I would hop online and get might happily get sucked in again.

Blame the witty, wonderful friends I get to hang out with online. Blame the election. Blame Sandy. Blame the excruciating slowness of the publishing submission process. Blame the blessing of having too much writing time, combined with the curse of having not enough deadlines. Blame the fact that writing is hard and goofing off is easy.

Whatever the reason, last week, on the Sunday before the election, I decided enough was enough. On the advice of my very sensible husband, I decided that I wouldn’t go online until lunchtime. I have cheated a tiny bit, but so far, the plan has been working very well. Here’s the idea.

You know how, if you have trouble sleeping, they tell you not to use your bedroom for anything but sleep and sex? And that rather than lying around sleeplessly in the middle of the night, you should get up, do something soothing, and then put yourself back to bed? That’s how I’m approaching my writing space.

Every morning, after breakfast and exercise and shower, I put my laptop on my desk and my butt in the desk chair. I turn off the ringer on my phone. I don’t open the internet. I just go to whatever document I have assigned myself to work on that morning.

Every twenty minutes or so, I walk away from the desk—shift the laundry, bring in the trash cans, get a glass of water, maybe just pace a little. Knowing I’ll stand up within twenty minutes makes it easier to keep my fingers on the keyboard.

I also stand up when I get stuck. Instead of hopping online, I hop away from my desk. But I don’t stay away for more than five minutes. Then I sit down and work for another twenty minutes.

I follow these rules until around noon. After that, I get to do whatever I want—work, play, work and play simultaneously, go out, whatever. But the really cool thing? Since I’ve gotten my writing muscles back in practice, I’ve been spending more and more of that free time at my desk, continuing whatever work I was doing in the morning.

Okay. There’s actually another piece to this story. For the first time in my life, I’ve joined a writing group. We’re getting together for the first time tonight, and I have to bring something to read. I could have chosen one of the manuscripts I have out on submission, or any of the dozens of pieces I have stashed away in my files. But I’ll be reading the new picture book I’ve been working on. Because for me, there’s only thing better than having a no-distractions writing policy, and that’s having a deadline.

If tonight works out, we’ll meet again next month. I hope my system keeps working this well—I mean, keeps me working this well—until then. If you don’t hear a lot from me here, it will probably mean that it is.

Feasting at the Fast

October 5, 2012

For the second time in three days, I dreamed about eating at Yom Kippur services. In both dreams, services were in full swing, the clergy resplendent in their special white robes, when I realized I wasn’t sitting in a pew, but at a table for eight, set for a banquet. While the cantor continued his fervent chanting, servers brought dinner, and everyone dug in. The cantor looked annoyed, but not surprised – certainly less surprised than I was.

In the first dream, I stuffed my face, like everyone else. (I don’t remember the menu, besides a crusty baguette.) On the dream’s second pass, I was the only one at the table who didn’t indulge.

What does it mean, doctor?

My former therapist, who wasn’t into archetypes or psychoanalysis, tended to see this sort of question as an opening for more free-form introspection. “How did the dream leave you feeling?” he might ask.

And I might answer, “In the first instance, guilty. And the second time, when I abstained? Annoyed. And a little bit self-righteous, maybe. And then guilty, for judging the people around me.”

“Good for you,” I can imagine my therapist saying at this point, smiling that warm, between-you-and-me smile of his. “Even though the second time you were the one doing the right thing, you still  figured out a way to feel guilty about it.”

And then we would probably dive back into our ongoing conversation about guilt – what triggers it, its uses and (more often) uselessness, and what other emotions it might mask.

But what if my therapist’s questions weren’t about feelings, but metaphors, plot points, imagery and motifs? What if  his question in response to my question were, “How might you use these scenes in an essay, a work of fiction, a poem?”

Then I would have to say, “It depends.”

In an essay, I could use the twin dreams to illustrate spiritual indifference in today’s society. Or the social irrelevance of today’s religious institutions. A more personal essay might delve into my own passionate ambivalence around religion.

In a short story or a novel, the scenes might emphasize my role as outsider – my failure to conform with the service in the first dream, and with my co-congregants in the second. I might build in a moment where I look into the face of one of the clergy and get a glimpse of understanding, and from that an unexpected connection.

In a poem, the feast and the fast could be symbols. The diners might be feasting on the substance of the service, tanking up on prayer or tradition or regret. Or the unstoppable service could be the background of wrongdoing or good intentions that’s always there, as we blithely go on passing the bread. Living our lives.

Or, how about this? In a blog post about writing, I could use the service to stand for form – the rules that govern different genres, the structures and basic story lines we expect. And I could use the meal to demonstrate what happens when a piece breaks the rules and confounds expectations. A dream that was only about sitting through Yom Kippur services wouldn’t be worth telling. And neither would a dream that was only about eating. Put the two together, though, and you’ve got something interesting – something that opens the way to new meaning.

Seed Season

September 24, 2012

Seeds are usually associated with spring, and fall with fruit. But autumn is seed season, too.

Yesterday I snipped the spent flowers from the tithonia, aka Mexican Sunflower, the brilliant orange annual we grow beside the garage. It grows to nearly six feet, and is apparently indestructible. Last year, when Hurricane Irene snapped its stems almost in two, our tithonia kept on stubbornly producing its fiery flower heads. We’ve been starting it from plants we buy at our local land trust’s yearly plant sale. But my mother-in-law wants to try it at her home in Colorado, and asked for some seeds.

Maybe I’ll keep some more myself and try it from scratch next year. We’ll see. The point is, I’m thinking about seeds.

Take my new novel, for example. The seed of the idea is still compelling, but the story refuses to grow. I have been vacillating between two desires: to submerge myself in a whole, long book, and to write a series of connected short stories, which would be easier to commit to than another big book.

When I admitted to my agent the other day that the big book wasn’t going, she gently suggested I might want try the short stories, instead. So yesterday, after collecting those tithonia flower heads, I started writing a new short story, taking the seed of my novel idea and trying it out in compressed form. We’ll see.

And then there’s that old picture book idea of mine. The one I’d set aside years ago, and recently retrieved and revised. My agent is now sending it out. And although it hasn’t found a home yet, one of the editors who read it liked my writing enough to invite me to try my hand at a picture book idea she has had in mind for a while.

I started working on it last week, and completed what I would call a serviceable first draft. I went to bed last night thinking I needed a stronger “hook,” an approach to the idea that would be fresh and compelling, something that would deepen the story, make it be about more than just itself. This morning I woke up with four ideas of how to do that. I’m hopeful and excited. But we’ll have to see how it goes.

You never know what’s going to work. At least, I don’t. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor I started with, some seeds never germinate, either because they land in the wrong soil, or they don’t get enough water, or they weren’t any good in the first place. And even when they do grow, you don’t know how they’ll end up. Some flowers are cut at their prime and brought inside to be admired, and some get left to mature and create the seeds of next year’s plants.

While I was outside collecting those tithonia seeds, I spent a while with our tomato plants. I harvested ripe fruit, removed withered leaves, propped up sagging stems, and took stock of what was left of the season. Dozens of tomatoes were still green or just beginning to redden, and a few cherry tomato branches had new flowers.

And then I noticed a fruit I had forgotten all about. It was one of our first black krims. I had waited too long to harvest it, and it had split and rotted on the vine. I had considered removing it, but it was too slimy to touch. So I left it where it was, and before long the growing vines and leaves and other tomatoes had obscured it. But now that the plant had died back, it revealed itself once again.

It was paper white, pleated and creased like crinoline, as wrinkled and puckered as a scrotum. Beautiful in a way I had never imagined a tomato could be.

Here’s to autumn, the season of new beginnings.

Picture (Book) Perfect?

September 2, 2012

So I’m sitting in shul yesterday, listening to the prayers and the chanting of the Torah and so on, and I’m thinking, “What’s a verb that either alliterates or rhymes with pancake flipper?” And I’m also thinking, “If I have to be distracted, how great is it that this is the most pressing question on my mind?”

Once upon a time, I was a writer of books for children. I wrote picture books for children who were too young to read (and the people who read to tem), and easy readers for children who were just learning to translate abstract squiggles into stories (and the people who helped them become literate).

Writing for children wasn’t a conscious decision. It came to me naturally, because my own children were little, and I was reading to them constantly. The cadences of books like Blueberries for Sal and Owl Moon and The Stinky Cheese Man got stuck in my head. And when I imagined an audience, the kids who regularly snuggled in my lap to listen automatically came to mind.

Once I started doing it, I fell in love. I loved that I could read the whole story through at once, hold the whole thing in my head, grasp the rhythm and arc. I find my way into a story primary by sound, so being able to hear the whole story at once, like a song, worked well for me.

Writing well in any format means not wasting words, but this is especially true for picture books. For me, this means millions of revisions. Since I love manipulating minutiae, and generally view writing as creating the opportunity to rewrite, picture books’ stingy word-allotment suited my temperament perfectly.

Plus, it was working. Once I’d sold my first picture book, writing and selling more was easier. Or not. In fact, for every story I started, I abandoned a dozen. And for every five I finished and submitted to publishers, I sold one.

Why? Some of my ideas just weren’t developed, and others just weren’t that good. Also, my writing was getting more and more “quiet” as industry tastes moved the other way. Editors became more cautious. Publishers merged or got swallowed up. The imprints that published my first two books disappeared. And I had no one to tell me what to do.

I had had an agent, briefly. I’d sold one of my books through her, and then decided I didn’t need an agent, because I had so many contacts in children’s publishing. Then most of those contacts either left or lost their jobs. And now that my own kids were nearly grown, I was no longer reading children’s books the way I had been.

I was doing other things, like writing newspaper stories, and then editing other people’s newspaper stories. And I started writing a novel. A big one, for grown-ups. After a while, the big novel consumed all my writing energy. When it was finished, all I could think of doing was starting another one. Children’s books were something I remembered fondly, from a former life.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was chatting with my agent, the one whom I signed with to help me sell my big novel for grown-ups. She doesn’t handle picture books. But I didn’t care, because she loves my big novel for grown-ups, and she believes in it, probably even more than I do. She also understands me. When we talk, it’s like we’re old friends who lost touch for a while, and are rediscovering all the things we have in common.

So one day my agent I are chatting, and I happen to mention one of my kids’ books. And she asks, “Why aren’t you writing kids’ books anymore?”

“I have drawers full of kids’ book manuscripts,” I tell her.

And she says something like, “Why don’t you show them to me?”

So I go through all my unpublished children’s books, and I send her the four I consider my best. She hates one of them. Another she’s not sure about. She loves another, but thinks it needs work. But one – my favorite, the one about bees — she thinks just needs a few tweaks, and then should go out on submission to publishers. She reminds me that picture books are not her area of expertise, but says a colleague at her agency who knows all about them is willing to help.

The colleague agrees with my agent’s assessment. He also says that I need to cut 200 words from the bee book.

First I balk, and then I rally. I let the information simmer overnight, and in the morning I get to work. For the next day or two, I cut back and rebuild the text. I shave unneeded helping verbs and prepositions. I delete adverbs and replace them with more descriptive verbs. I eliminate extraneous details and compress scenes to their essence. When I realize that I’ve lost some crucial phrases, I put them back, and remove others that matter less.

In a picture book, the illustrations tell at least as much of the story as the words do. After an artist comes on board (God willing), more of my words will be expendable. But for now, I need to leave in enough so an editor will envision pictures like the ones in my mind.

I keep clicking “recount,” watching my progress, and I keep printing the story out and reading it aloud to myself, pacing from one end of my office to other. When I can’t find anything else to fix, I send it back to my agent. The next day, sitting in shul, I realize I need to make one more change.

“That must be awfully humbling,” a friend commiserates.

Actually not, I tell her. Mostly, what I feel is grateful. The revised, shorter text is much stronger than the original, but I couldn’t see that for myself. I am thrilled to be working with such a supportive agent, and grateful that she has colleagues she can call on for help – and that she recognizes when she needs it. And I’m gratified beyond words to have my old love for children’s books rekindled.

As for the pancake flipper, I ended up rewriting the whole sentence to say slipper fuzz, instead. When I read the new phrasing to my husband, he came up with exactly the right verb. I’m grateful for that, too.