Archive for November, 2010

Making a List…

Alex's Very Big List

There’s a quiet hum of activity at my house.  I found my daughter cutting the legs off a pair of her jeans last night. (“To make presents with!”) My son has been spinning about like a top, cajoling everyone he can into taking dictation for the list he started back in July.  The tree is up, the lights are hung, and tickets for the Nutcracker have been purchased.  The puppy is stealthily removing ornaments and (mostly) exchanging them for bites of cheese. So, without further ado, here’s my own list of holiday wishes:

An extra week of  winter vacation — one that doesn’t add on a week of school at the end of the year.

A snowstorm during said week, preferably immediately after a run to the grocery store, just large enough to make sure everyone has to stay home in pajamas.

A mysterious loss of power to the Wii station, and only to the Wii station, during that time.

Ten consecutive hours of sleep.

A new book under my Christmas tree, one that I’ve never read before but immediately love with the passion I reserve for Practical Magic, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Voyager.

News from a reliable source that Joss Whedon has decided to do at least two more seasons of Firefly. In addition to the ‘lost’ season recently discovered in the archives and put on sale just in time for Christmas.

A report from the government that mashed potato and stuffing sandwiches, followed by a Snickers bar, have amazing health properties and no calories. Particularly if eaten while lounging on the couch in pajamas.

Good health and happiness for everyone I know.

What’s on your list?

All lit up


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A friend was visiting this weekend and we talked about her Kindle.  She swore she’d never buy another paper book again (with the exception of Evenfall, of course) — she likes her device that much.  She can read almost any book she wants, any time, and usually for less than the price of a regular book.  Plus, she said, (and was she really eyeing the books stacked in my living room?) there’s no clutter — just a sleek black case that fits neatly away.

I have a Kindle too, and I find it very handy.  When I’m stuck at home and unable to run out to the bookstore, for example, I can download and read almost whatever I want within a matter of minutes. There’s no need to pack a stack of books on vacation, either — I can take as many as I want without weighing the suitcase down and annoying my husband.  And for books that I know I’ll only read once, it’s nice not to have them taking up space on my shelves.

But secretly, I’m a romantic at heart.  And much as I love technology — you’ll pry my iphone from my cold, dead body — electronic readers aren’t romantic, at least not for me. Opening up the pages of a book isn’t just about the book itself — it’s about the person I was when I last read it, and about the people who have read it before me.

My daughter’s hit a stage where she loves Nancy Drew.  My mom saved all of mine from when I was a child, so she’s reading the same books, and there’s something bittersweet about sitting with her and remembering the nine-year-old I was, lost in the shadows with Nancy and Bess and the gang, and watching her find her way through the same mysterious paths.

My great-aunt was an avid reader as well, and she read every Nancy Drew along with me.  In the corner of each book, in discreet cursive script, are her initials. Each time I see them, I smile, and there’s something comforting about having those letters in my daughter’s hands.

My son isn’t reading on his own yet, and going through our stack of chapter and board books is an exercise in the future and the past at once – the future, because looking at Emma I can see how quickly this phase passes  — and the past because, as I read The Going To Bed Book for the 20 millionth time, I remember the first time I read it, to a sleepy baby nine years ago, and how as a new mom I thought nothing could ever be better than that moment.

Then there are the books I’ve ‘borrowed’ from friends or been given over the years.  The copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a friend’s older sister gave me in high school.

My great-grandmother's book

Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night a college roommate left behind. The Gone With the Wind copy my great aunt gave her mother back in 1936.


When I touch one of these books — or any number of others – the people connected to it can reach out through time and space and be a part of my life again, if only for an instant.  So I’ll be keeping my clutter.  It’s more romantic that way.

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The Secret Word

I’ve spent a good portion of today manhandling the slobbering beast into his crate, and neither of us are best pleased.  Our neighbors are having work done on their yard, and Harley is convinced the contractors mean us harm.  Normally he’s very docile, but there’s something about strangers carrying heavy equipment that really makes him mad, particularly when they are doing it around me or the kids.

What big teeth you have, grandma

I kept wishing, as I wrestled him into the house, that there was a secret word to make him understand what was going on. He knows the command quiet, and stopped barking (mostly) when I told him to, but it was clear he was not happy about the situation.  Which I appreciate, but everyone would have had a better day if there was a way to help him differentiate between threatening foe who must be reminded not to trespass and uncoordinated contractor carrying fence posts.

And speaking of secret words, I’ve had three different people ask me about how to get published in the past week.  It’s interesting, and I have to admit, kind of weird to be the person getting asked — I’ve spent so much time asking others along the way, I’m not sure I feel qualified to be dispensing advice.  However, three is some kind of a trend, so here goes, and I hope it helps:

Read, read, read, read.  Pull your favorite books apart to see how the authors handle characters, plot, pacing.  Then read them again.

Write. You don’t have to do it every day, but do it regularly.  Compare what you write to what you read and see what the difference is.  Put what you’ve written away for a few days, then pull it out, reread it, and make it better.

Get helpful feedback. Join an online writer’s community — there are a bunch out there — join the writer’s group at your local library, take a class, or attend a conference.  Whatever you choose, find a place to get thoughtful feedback on your work.  When someone takes the time to critique your stuff, say “thank you.”  Do  not get mad, do not tell them they don’t get your writing, do not explain what you were trying to accomplish.  Listen, take notes, say thank you, and put your writing and your notes away.  In a few days, when the criticism isn’t as fresh, pull everything out again, look it over, and you just might find they were right.  If not, fine, but make sure  you give it a chance.

Research.  There are lots of blogs out there written by professional agents and editors.  These blogs talk about how to revise your manuscript, research an agent, write a query letter.  Read them.  (Three of my favorites are listed at the bottom of my bio page on my website.)  Study them.  Listen to them.

Do this, and I can’t promise you’ll get published.  But I can promise you’ll be a lot further along the path to getting published than you would be otherwise.  These four things are exactly what I did, and they are (unfortunately) the only ‘secrets’ that I know.

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Uphill All The Way

It’s been about a week since I’ve gone for a run, and even longer since I’ve had a chance to run outside.  I was slogging up a hill, breathing hard, and my body had the same reaction it always does — a very clear “Are you trying to kill me?” feeling.

I like to talk about running with my friends.  I like to plan my route, I like to look online at different races.  But the running itself? Not so much.  If I’ve taken even a few days off, I always forget how hard it is, and how much happier I am when it is over.

I know people who get up at 5:30 in the morning and put on headlamps to run.  The only time I tried that was in high school, when I wore glasses.  In my sleep-induced haze, I forgot to put them on, and ran directly into a tree within the first  mile.  I am not kidding.

I also know people who set aside a specific time each day just for running and guard it religiously.  They won’t nap or return phone calls or run errands or anything else.  I admire that dedication.  My running time is squeezed in around everything else, and if there’s too much going on – or too many other things I want to do — it gets cut out altogether.

But I’ve found that when too much time passes between runs, I’m not the same person.  I’m crankier, quicker to argue, more restless. I don’t go to sleep as well and I’m more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. And then my husband pushes me out the door, or I use the hour I set aside for making dinner and do a quick loop, and when I get back I realize how much I’ve missed it.

I took a few months off from running when I was pregnant with my son, and then when he was born it was the middle of winter, with ice storm after ice storm.  When I finally made it outside, it was the longest I’d ever gone without running, and I couldn’t make it a full block without stopping.  I thought I’d never run more than a mile again. But each time I ran, I went a tiny bit further — to the next driveway, then the next telephone poll — and by summer, I was back to my original distance.

It’s the same with writing.  I spend a lot of time reading about writing, a lot of time thinking about writing, but not as much as I should — or would like — actually sitting down and doing it.   And every time I come back to my laptop after time away, it seems too hard, too impossible, to do again.  In the days I’ve taken off, my writing muscles have grown flabby. I have to remind myself to take it one word, one sentence, at a time, and then eventually I fall into the rhythm again.

And if I’m lucky, there comes a time with both running and reading when I forget what I’m doing, when the miles are going by so smoothly, the words coming so easily, that it’s as if I’m flying.  It doesn’t always happen, and it never lasts long enough, but it creates a memory that keeps me going. Until the next time.

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Diving In

Every summer, we pack up the kids and the dog and whatever else we can stuff in the car and head to a tiny beach in Connecticut.  Let me preface this story by stating that I am not a beach person. My ancestors come from a place where damp is a season, and I spend most of my time slathering sunscreen on myself and anyone related to me who will hold still long enough.  But the beach in Connecticut is a tradition, going back generations on my husband’s side, and I have come to accept that I will spend a good portion of my summer camped out under an umbrella, hiding from the sun’s rays with a bunch of other pigmentally challenged individuals.

There are two reasons in particular that I am not fond of the beach: I have to wear a bathing suit and there are sharks. Let us address the more upsetting of these two reasons first.  The beach is tiny, as I mentioned, and as you step onto it for the first time that season it feels as if everyone turns around to say hello.  For years I agonized over finding the right piece of spandex-lycra combination that would make me look taller/thinner/more in shape, that would make people think “Whoa, she looks good,” rather than “Um, hey, have you heard the beach shack started selling Skinny Cow pops this year?”

Then there are the sharks.  I read Jaws way too young, and the memory of it has stayed with me for life.  I am seriously convinced that when I step into the water, someone rings a dinner bell, and all the sharks out cruising in the ocean start hightailing it my way.  I usually manage to stay in the water for about five minutes before panic sets in and I have to retreat back to the umbrella.

This has gone on forever.  But then a few years ago, my son figured out how to walk, and the entire matrix changed.  Instead of trying to find a suit that made me look good, I needed to find one that would stay on as I hauled down the boardwalk at warp speed, intent on keeping someone who could not swim from throwing himself in the water. When people stopped me to say hello, I was too busy to wonder what they thought of how I looked — I just hoped all pertinent parts were still covered.

Last year he learned how to swim, and several times attempted to make it to Long Island. (I lost my cell phone to the Sound jumping in after him the first time.)  Now that he’s in the water, I kind of have to be too.  And while I still spend a good portion of the time splashing the shallows and hollering at him to come back, I’ve found that sometimes you just have to dive in and swim, sharks be damned.

So, with that long-winded prologue, I’d like to introduce my website. I’m diving in and hoping I’ve got all pertinent bits covered.  Let me know what you think.

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Halfway There

I’ve been working under deadlines, professionally speaking, since I was around 20.  (If you count deadlines I didn’t get paid for, like school newspapers and internships, you can bring the age down to about 12.)  My first editor scared the bejesus out of me at a young age, and made it clear that short of catastrophic, unexpected death, (which would happen to me anyways if I missed one of her deadlines) there was no excuse for turning a story in late.

Since those days, I’ve rarely missed a deadline or needed an extension. I mostly like laboring under deadline, too.  Sure, there’s the pressure to get it done, but there’s also comfort in having a finish line in sight, in knowing that, once I’ve passed off the job, I can breathe a sigh of relief because my work is completed. It’s someone else’s responsibility now.

This weekend, I took my daughter and six of her friends to the American Girl Doll store for her birthday party.  A mom with a big car agreed to drive so all the girls could go together on the trip, and we listened to them chattering in the back, and smiled at how funny they sounded.  And then I turned around, and instead of seeing a clutch of cute baby girls, like I’d been hearing, I saw a carful of nine-year-olds, and it hit me: I’m halfway there.

In just nine short years, my daughter will be eighteen.  If we’ve done our job right as parents, she’ll be on her way to the next stage of her life, the stage where our work is (mostly) done and her choices are her own responsibility.

Already, I can see that next stage in her face and the faces of her friends — the round, chubby cheeks are mostly gone, their elbows are no longer deliciously creased with fat, their legs are sturdy and muscular, not plump and soft.  Glimpses of the babies they were are hard to come by.  Glimpses of the teens they’ll become — in a toss of the head, a  challenging tone, a bid for independence — are more frequent.

When I turned 18, I left for college and never looked back.  Oh, I came home for summer breaks, for holidays and the occasional long weekends, but never again to live.  I’d landed a job and an apartment before graduation and was set to show whoever needed showing that I was all set, thanks.  I could do this on my own. I know how it will be with my daughter.  Already, she’s twice as independent as I ever was.

It’s  not enough time, I want to say.  I need an extension on that deadline. But there are no extensions, no excuses, no second chances to get my words right.  There’s only now, this minute and the next and the one after that, all of them hurtling us toward the future, toward her independence and my obsolescence.  There is no rewrite.  There is no do-over.

Halfway there.

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In the small Connecticut town where my family spends part of the summer, there is an amazing used bookstore.  It has a dog named Sailor, and a comfy rocking chair, and you can buy a whole bag of gently loved children’s books for the cost of a movie and popcorn — perfect for a damp beach house.  The last time we were visiting, my daughter picked out several hardcovers, and had the bag dangling from her wrist.  My husband noticed and offered to carry it for her.  She refused, whispering to me, “It’s a comforting feeling.”

It made me laugh, because it’s exactly what I say when my husband ‘offers’ to clear the bed of the three or four books that strewn on his side.  There’s just something comforting about having a book, or four, nearby, in case the first one turns out to be not what you were expecting.

Driving home from ballet class in the dark the other night, I realized that fall was here to stay.  No more long, lazy summer afternoons. No more beach days. No more shorts and flip-flops.  I’m desperately in need of some comforting, and so I’m blatantly stealing an idea from Katherine Center (check out her books, if you haven’t already, particularly Everyone is Beautiful) and creating a Comfort List.  Here goes:

My Comfort List for November

Clean, warm sheets, fresh from the dryer

My bedside table

A stack of books on the bedside table that I can’t wait to read

A hot pot of tea on a Sunday morning when it’s raining

Coming in from the cold to smell potatoes roasting with olive oil and rosemary

A large brown dog asleep at my feet
Snuggling in bed with the family on Saturday morning
Learning that  my favorite authors have new books coming out soon (looking forward to Bartimaeus  and The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud and The Other Life by Ellen Meister, one of the nicest authors I know)
Hearing the next chapter of my book in my head and knowing it will be there for me when I have time to write it
Home-made chocolate pudding
The weight of my five-year-old in my arms

Watching ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ with my daughter, eating hot buttered popcorn and snuggling under the blankets.

What’s on your list?

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All week, I’ve been reviewing versions of my web site.  Can I tell you how much I love it?  It’s created by this talented designer, and I can’t wait to share it with you.  It captures the best parts of my book, it’s beautiful,  and did I mention I love it? (Plus it will have secret pages for readers — more on that later.)

But…a new website means that the blog header above will be going away.  And that makes me a little bit sad.  The picture is the view from my children’s preschool parking lot — every morning when they were little I’d look up, take a deep breath, and think how lucky we all were to go to a school with a view like that. I snapped this picture on one of my son’s last days at the preschool.  I wanted a reminder of how that view made me feel every morning, grateful and happy, and I wanted to remember the people who worked there, who spent just as much time teaching my kids to be good people as they did teaching them their abcs. And even though my children are growing up and the picture is coming down, I think I always will.

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