Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Whose book is it, anyway?

November 13, 2015


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.

Picture This

February 11, 2014


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.

New Picture Book Coming!

November 20, 2013

IMG_20131118_0001_NEWHey! Look what just got announced in Publisher’s Marketplace!

Ruth Horowitz’s BEES IN THE TREES, about an apple grower and a beekeeper, and a misunderstanding that escalates into a feud, to Tracy Mack at Scholastic, by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (World).

I am thrilled that my story has found a home at Scholastic, grateful as all get-out for my wonderful agent and friend Linda Epstein for making it happen, and eager to start working with my editor Tracy Mack, as we polish my words to fit with the pictures. But first Tracy and her team have to find the perfect artist to create those pictures.

Making a picture book takes time. How much time?

I wrote the first version of BEES in 1991. We were living in Vermont. My kids were little, and we’d gone apple picking. I noticed that the orchard also sold honey, and started thinking about how bees need apple trees and apple trees need bees. It seemed like the perfect set-up for a picture book. So I began playing around with the idea, and pretty soon it was about more than just bees and trees. It was also about friendship and fences, fuzzy slippers and funny insults. When it felt just right, I started sending the book out in search of a publisher.

Back then, submitting a picture book manuscript meant mailing a physical object. Even if you had no intention of illustrating the book, yourself, you created a dummy to show how the book might look. That meant literally cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with rubber cement), and going to Kinko’s (because in those days, who had a copier at home?). (The pictures on this post are from that dummy — I got a little carried away.)

My buddy Robert Resnik walked over to Kinko’s with me. On the way, I recited my story to him.

“What will you do if it doesn’t sell?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll sell.” I said. How could it not? It was so good! And I wasn’t just anyone. I had already published two picture books, Bat Time and Mommy’s Lap.

The next morning I sent BEES out to the first editor. In those days, most children’s book editors would still consider unsolicited manuscripts from writers who didn’t have literary agents. And even if they returned your manuscript, they sometimes included a personal letter telling you why. Over the next 10 years, I sent the story out to and got it back from 26 editors, and accumulated a fat stack of encouraging no-thank-you letters in the process.

At that point, I set the project aside. By now, Crab Moon and Breakout at the Bug Lab had come out, and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was in the works. But I was starting to get interested in other kinds of writing, for readers who weren’t children. My own kids were nearly grown. I was working for Seven Days newspaper, and had just started on a big, ambitious novel for adults.

Fast-forward another decade, to the summer of 2012. My kids have graduated from college, and my husband David and I have moved from Vermont to Rhode Island.  I have finished my big, ambitious novel and signed with an agent, who is shopping it around. I’m a full-time writer now — no day job — but I’m feeling stuck, creatively. I have all the time and energy I could possibly want to devote to my writing, but I can’t seem to settle into my next project.

Linda and I are chatting one day when she asks, “Why aren’t you writing children’s books anymore?”

“I have filing cabinets full of children’s book manuscripts,” I tell her. (That’s a slight exaggeration – it’s more like folders full. But there are a lot of folders.)

She’s like, “So why don’t you pick out the best ones and show them to me?”IMG_20131118_0002_NEW

And I’m like, “Because they’re picture books, and you don’t represent picture books?”

And she’s all like, “I represent you.”

Thank you, Linda. I go home and start combing through my children’s book manuscripts. I have paper folders full of stories printed out on paper from the days before computers, and digital stories in electronic folders from the days since computers. Some of them are garbage, and some of them are promising, and a few of them are pretty damned good — like the one about bees and trees and friendship and fences and fuzzy slippers and funny insults.

That one is really good. But looking at it now, after leaving it alone for those years and honing my writing skills with all those other projects, I can see how it could be better. By a lot.

So I fuss with it and fix it, and when it feels just right, I send it to Linda – no scissors-and- cement dummy, just my text in a Word document attached to an email. And she does the rest.

If my bee story has a moral, it might be, “It’s dumb to pick fights with your friends.” But if the story of my bee story has a moral, it might be, “Never say never.” Or, “Patience makes perfect.” Or — in the case of me and the world of children’s books — “There’s no place like home.”

Nursing My Diagnosis

May 9, 2013


“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.”



“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.

Fictitious Afflictions

August 10, 2012

The other day I sat down with a friend who’s a healthcare professional, and picked her brain about various medical conditions I might inflict on a character. I knew how the event needed to play out in my plot. Certain types of symptoms were preferable to others, and it needed to take a specific amount of time for them to develope. The ensuing crisis should require a specific level of intervention. There were certain types of medical procedures I wanted to come into play. And I needed to leave my character in limbo for a specific amount of time.

As my friend ticked through different possibilities, I thought about how well each scenario would meet my fictional needs.

“There could be abdominal pain,” she said.

“Good.” I wrote it down.

“Nausea or vomiting.”


“Spotty vision.”


Anyone listening in from a nearby table would have found the whole thing pretty strange. I know I did.

“This is exactly what I was looking for!” I told my friend when we had gotten it figured out. All sorts of pieces were coming together. The story I had been hoping for seemed real and possible. I was so happy and grateful.

“I’m glad this is going to happen to a fictional character, and not one of my real patients,” my friend said with a smile.

I readily agreed. But her comment got me thinking.

At this point in the project, I have a pretty good grip on the logistics of my plot. I know how the medical scenario I’ve been imagining will affect my main character. And I’m beginning to understand how the imaginary crisis will play into my book’s broader themes. But beyond the basic facts my friend helped me figure out, I haven’t considered the situation from the point of view of my poor, afflicted character. I don’t even feel especially bad for her.

Why? For starters, she isn’t really real to me yet. More importantly – at this point, I don’t even especially like her.

This isn’t some random reaction. Most of the characters in this story aren’t really real to me yet. I have barely started writing it. But I like the other characters just fine. I even have a soft spot for the one I know has acted really badly. And I know that another character, whom my main character can’t stand, is actually a perfectly decent human being, even though I understand completely what my main character has against her. And I really, really love my main character, even though she has all sorts of bad qualities.

If I don’t love my characters, how can I write well about them? And if I don’t care about a character’s suffering, how can I expect readers to care? I’m pretty sure that once I really start writing about this one holdout character, the one I don’t like, she’ll start to flesh out for me. But first I need a point of entry. And I need to remove what’s standing in my way. So what is that? As I sat there with my friend, I figured it out.

The original kernel of this story occurred to me a while back, at a time when I was feeling hurt and angry. A certain someone needed to be punished, and I was going to do just that, through fiction. By now I have gotten (mostly) over being pissed off in real life. And the make-believe world of my story has grown and developed far beyond the real-life situation that spawned it. But my original associations with the character who set the whole thing off have persisted.

When I confessed this to my friend (who, besides working in healthcare, has also done some writing, herself), she very sensibly suggested that I pick someone I do like, and keep that person in mind as I write about the character in question.

So that’s my next task. I’ll be scouting around, holding a sort of secret casting call, considering real-world characters to graft onto the one I already have in mind. The result should be a richer, more complex character. One I can think — and write — about more sympathetically. One the reader can better identify with. Or at least better understand.

And who knows what might happen if I were to imagine the worst-case scenario I would inflict on my enemy afflicting my friend? Besides making better fiction, it might turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.

Looking Up

July 24, 2012

I had a not-so-great night last night. Woke up around 2, spent way too long trying to go back to sleep. Hormones? Humidity? A dear friend’s illness? The election? The fact that I got zero writing done yesterday? The fact that while I was getting zero writing done, a friend of a friend’s debut novel just sold at auction?

Whatever the cause, my lousy night left me feeling too washed out to go to the gym this morning. And the fact that at 10 am I would be talking to the friend whose friend sold her book probably figured into the equation. Despite what I would like to think about myself, the idea of this other person’s success was not sitting well with me.

So I made the bed. Took a shower. Folded the cold wash. Tried (and failed) to fix a leak in the soaker hose that snakes through the petunias. Then I tried something harder. I switched to a new dentist. And that turned out to be surprisingly easy. Two phone calls and it was done. When I told our old dentist’s receptionist where to send our records, she even said, “I’ve heard great things about him!”

I still had about 45 minutes before my phone call. I figured that conversation would be a more fun if I went into it from a position of writerly strength. So, buoyed by my dentist-switching success, I opened the draft of my new novel, and wrote. And that turned out to be surprisingly easy, too. I wrote about someone finding a squashed doll’s head in the garden, until the phone rang.

The conversation was great. My friend was so thrilled for her friend, and the story of how the book got sold was so interesting and exciting, that I couldn’t help but get happy and excited, too. “It means it can happen!” My friend said when I confessed about how I’d been feeling. “It’s good!” And of course she was right. And then something else happened.

You know how in the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast,” after Belle decides she loves the Beast for his inner beauty, he magically transforms into a Rod Stewart look-alike, so she doesn’t have to marry a beast, after all?  That ending has always pissed me off. What kind of lesson is it teaching when her reward for not being shallow is the very thing she would have wanted if she were shallow? I mean, come on, folks! Well, what happened to me next was sort of like that.

Just as I was feeling good about my friend’s friend’s success, and feeling even better about myself for feeling so good about my friend’s friend’s success, the Fed Ex truck pulled up in front of my house. I never get things from Fed Ex. But this time, I did. It was 10 contributor’s copies of Lilith magazine’s Summer 2012 issue, in which my short story, “Letdown,” appears as the third-place winner in the publication’s annual fiction contest.

As my friend continued recounting her happy story, I quietly sliced the box opened, removed the packing paper, pulled out a copy of the magazine, and found my story. It looked great.

And that wasn’t the end of it, either. After I got off the phone, I returned to my writing, buoyed now not just by my dentist-switching success, but also by my friend’s friend’s publishing success, and by seeing my story in Lilith.

I lingered deliciously over the details of the squashed doll’s head’s appearance. I described the hell out of my protagonist’s delight in her find, and I compellingly explored her ambivalence about sharing her discovery with the woman she would be meeting for lunch later in the day, someone she was just beginning to know. Would her new maybe-friend understand her fascination with disembodied doll parts? And if not, what would that mean about the future of their friendship? I was brilliant.

And then the last thing happened. There I was, writing like nobody’s business, when the UPS truck pulled up. WTF? Two deliveries in one day? Who could it be from? And what could it be?

It was from was from a guy I have been friends with since the fifth grade, when we went on an ice-skating “date” in the park. We were closest in high school, which was when I started collecting disembodied doll parts. He was there for my sixteenth birthday, when my cake was decorated with a doll’s arm holding a molar with its braces band still attached. He baked the cake for my seventeenth birthday, which was decorated with an icing portrait of Jerry Garcia. We haven’t seen each other in years, but we have renewed our friendship through Facebook. He is a sculptor now, living in Los Angeles. One of his recent pieces was an enormous hand – basically, a gigantic, disembodied doll part. He had sent me three baby dolls’ hands and two feet, the models for his latest project.

My hormones are still incorrigible. It’s still way too humid. My dear friend is still ill. The upcoming election still scares me. And my first novel is still out on submission. But publishing success is possible. Thousands of readers will find my short story in Lilith. And my good old friend knew exactly where to send his doll parts.

Picture Books 101

June 19, 2012

While everyone else is starting their summer vacations, I’m heading back to school. On Monday I’ll be teaching a class of 5th and 6th graders about “being an author.” That’s how my friend phrased the request, anyway.

I said yes because I haven’t done one of these gigs in years, and I remembered they were fun. Also, when my friend asked, the date was an entire month away. The then-Present Me blithely agreed, figuring the chips would fall on some hapless Future Me. Trouble is, that former Present Me has by now morphed into a smug Past Me. She’s off somewhere sitting on her duff, no doubt eating bonbons. In other words, it’s time to get it together.

I have 90 minutes to fill. My plan is to spend the first half talking about my life as an author, focusing mostly on Crab Moon. To prepare, I pulled out my Crab Moon archives. That’s a foot-high stack of file folders – printed-out email messages from my Aunt Susan, drafts, correspondence with Gale Pryor, my wonderful editor at Candlewick, a packet of photographs of horseshoe crabs sent by my cousin David, notes from phone calls with Gale, more drafts, photocopies of fab illustrator Kate Kiesler’s sketches, dummies and paintings, yet more drafts, business correspondence, and finally page proofs, published reviews, and letters from readers.

I had remembered how long the process of bringing the book to publication was. But I had forgotten the particulars. Looking through the old drafts and letter now, searching for the essential artifacts that would tell my audience something interesting and useful, I was struck by

— how much the story changed between my first idea and the final book

— how much better (cleaner, sharper, more focused, better paced) the book is than my first idea

— how much of that cleaning and sharpening and focusing and pacing is the work of my editor (although the actual words on the page are mine)

— how lucky I am to have landed in some patient, capable and persistent editorial hands.

The second half of my class will be a group exercise in literary analysis. We’ll compare three picture-book treatments of The Little Red Hen, discussing the different choices the authors made, and talking about which elements are essential to keeping it the same story (could you write a version without the character of the little red hen, and still consider it The Little Red Hen?).

I could spend days (year, a life time) on this stuff. But I only have an hour and a half. And my audience of 10 and 11-year olds probably doesn’t share my passion. What do I want them to take away from the session?

— Real people write books.

— There is no one right way to tell a story.

— In picture books, the words and the images work together to tell the story.

— Writing in any genre involves lots of conscious or unconscious decisions.

— Writing well in any genre takes patience, persistence, and a willingness to listen to constructive criticism.

— A great editor can be a book’s greatest asset.