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Archive for April, 2011

Line of the Week

(Overheard at swim class)

“So what have we learned today?  That’s right.  We’ve learned not to swim with our mouths open while chewing gum.”

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The ever-charming and entertaining Joshilyn Jackson posted a blog post today that started me thinking.  I’m the kind of person for whom “good” is not usually “enough,” and my definition of success is constantly being adjusted upwards.  It’s a good thing, having goals, but there’s also something to be said for enjoying the moment, for appreciating what you’ve achieved.  I tend not to do this, and I’ve become more and more conscious of my attitude as my children have grown. I want them to strive to be their best in everything, but I also want them to be able to delight in the high points without rushing forward to the next peak.  And I want them to realize that who they are, and what they are worth, comes from within, not from some outward goal that they may or may not make.

I don’t always help myself on this path, but luckily I have people around me who will remind me of what’s important.  Sometimes I have an epic fail. (Example:  I’m not really a Tiger Mom, but when my daughter came home with a fabulous report card I couldn’t …quite … stop myself from asking why she went from an A+ to an A in one subject.  My husband didn’t hang me upside down for that one, but he was definitely tempted.)

In my writing career, I’ve spent a lot of time focussing on what’s ahead, instead of what’s in front of me right now.  Finishing my book, finding an agent, connecting with an editor, seeing my book in stores … it’s like climbing a mountain, and as soon as you reach the top of one, there’s another summit to tackle.  And the thing is, it never ends.  There will always be some other goal, just out of reach.  And if you tie your self-worth to whether you attain it, you will never be content with what you’ve already accomplished.

I’m starting to understand, too, that after a certain point, much of this whole thing is out of my control.  At the end of the day, the only reasonable goal is to write the best book I am capable of, do what I can to get it into the world, and let it go.  And then spend time with the real prize, the people (and slobbering beasts) who matter.  Because if you think time on each mountain top is short, the time you have with the people you love is infinitely shorter.

How do you define success?

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Yes, I went out with the Girl Scouts.  And yes, I managed to get us lost DESPITE PRE-HIKING THE TRAIL.  Gah.  Technically, we weren’t LOST, as I told the small child who timidly asked me.  We knew where we were, and we knew where we wanted to go, we just didn’t know how to get there.  A woman with a better sense of direction than me (read: a sense of direction at all) managed to navigate us back to the trailhead, and I figured it out from there.

So I’m thinking about Jan’s comment in the previous post and wondering if perhaps it would be a good idea for me to outline my next story after all. 🙂

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Sunday I went letterboxing.  Letterboxing, for those of you who might not know, is like going on a treasure hunt in the woods.  You have a map, and hopefully a compass, and you search for hidden boxes that contain rubber stamps, which you then stamp into your notebook.  I had volunteered to lead a Girl Scout letterboxing expedition this week, and since I truly could get lost in my own home, I thought it might be wise to cheat and do the route in advance.

I took my daughter and the slobbering beast and we set off.  We were under a time constraint, and at first I step-marched us through the woods at a brisk pace.  And then we came to the first cache and couldn’t find the stamp and the normally benign Harley decided to terrify an adorable fluffy intact German Shepherd puppy for absolutely no rational reason that we could see, and the day kind of started going to hell.  (Strange man holding the leash:  “Wow.  He looks really strong.”  Me, holding leash and tree: “Yes, he is.   Please leave us now.”)

But the sun was shining after what seems like an eternity of New England winter, and I was with my nine-year-old daughter, who is growing up and away too fast, so I gave up on the quest and just enjoyed the time with her.  And then miraculously, we discovered that one of us had been reading the map wrong.  (Hint:  The nine-year-old was not at fault.) And then we (okay, she) figured out where the first cache was, and from there the path was clear.

Writing, I think, is a lot like letterboxing.  There’s no guarantee of success at the end, no promise of a treasure box of riches or a spot on the best seller list.  If you write, the best thing you can hope for is that you enjoy it, that you find your way from one plot point to another, that the story unfolds beneath you in a way that makes sense.  And then, if you’ve worked hard and are very, very lucky, the rest may come.  But it’s the journey that will matter either way.

The chastened Harley

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I went for a run this week.  It was cold and raining, and uphill both ways (okay, maybe it just felt that way) but it was the only day this week when I could do a real run outside.  (I did not take the slobbering beast, because while he’ll spend hours outside in the snow, apparently he’s allergic to rain.  And although I need increased upper body strength, dragging his 70 pound carcass along the road does not seem to be the way to best achieve that goal. )

So I went, and I grumbled to myself for at least the first mile.  Then it started to pour, and I was too uncomfortable to grumble, and then somewhere along the way I kind of forgot about how miserable I was making myself and just focused on being — on the rain hitting my face, the rhythm I’d fallen into, the way my muscles were stretching and unfurling and really being used for the first time in a long while. And I thought how lucky I was to be doing this, outside on this New England spring day.

As always, my writing is falling into the same pattern.  I find myself making tentative tracks on the computer, grumbling about how hard this is, how I’m out of practice, how I’ll never get it right.  I have to concentrate and set tiny goals — just one more sentence!  just X number of pages by Friday! —  and somewhere along the way I forget to grumble to myself and find the rhythm again that reminds me just how lucky I am to be doing this.

Wherever you are, whatever your spring is, may you feel lucky too.

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You know how I’ve written that I prefer actual paper books to these new-fangled electronic readers?  And I do, truly.  Except that, um, I may have seen the light a little.

I’m using my Kindle to read drafts by other writers, and my IPad when I need to read a book for my book club quickly, and that’s all fine.  But last week I read about the IPad app for Sandra Boynton’s Going to Bed Book.  Now, the Going to Bed Book is the book I read so often when the kids were small, the whole family has it memorized.  Even the dog we had then could probably have recited a line or two, if pressed.  It’s the book I give whenever anyone has a new baby, the book I’ve replaced twice because it’s fallen apart.  I love this book.

“Huh,” I grumbled to my husband when I heard about the app.  “Grumble, grumble, technology, ruin of us all, grumble,  grumble.”

“Yep,” he said.  “But have you actually seen it?”

The app was like two bucks, so I downloaded it so I could better articulate to him how we are going to hell in a hand basket because no one reads real books anymore.  But then, I forgot what I was saying because I was having so much fun.

Did you get that I love the book?  I love it even more as an e-book.  It’s taken the spirit of the story, which is fun and light-hearted and a perfect way to end the night — and made it even more playful.  You can hear the stars in the sky, hear the waves sloshing, see the eyes on the bunny close when it gets dark and hear him snore. It made me get, for the first time, the possibilities  of an enhanced book.

In my case, I’ve heard from some readers that they don’t see enough of Frank (one of my main characters who happens to be a ghost) in my novel Evenfall.  But he’s in every scene that shows the house Evenfall – it’s just that sometimes his presence is a subtle one.  How much fun would it be to have the words on a page form the shape of Frank whenever he’s there, quietly manipulating the scene? To have an image of Nina cue us to his presence?  To hear his theme music in the background?

I suppose you wouldn’t want to read every book this way — or even to read a book this way every time.  But having the option to read with sensory cues enhancing the experience — kind of like a director’s cut on a video — would be all kinds of awesome.  Although, ironically, in a children’s bedtime book it’s a little too exciting, particularly since I’ve had to arm-wrestle with my son so everyone (read me) gets a chance to do the ‘fun’ pages.

Is there a book you’d like to read this way?  Besides Evenfall, I’d vote for any of the Harry Potters or LOTRs series.  What would you choose, and why?

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Every other week I spend a few minutes volunteering at the school library.  It’s a fun, quiet half hour for me before I walk down to the Kindergarten class and the controlled chaos of a swarm of six-year-olds.  I chat with the aide who runs the library (she’s a saint — the librarian position was axed years ago and this woman does a ton of work for considerably less pay, I would guess) but mostly I pick up the books kids have returned and put them back on the shelves.

As a writer of adult novels, I find it fascinating to see what gets checked out.  (And if you are writing YA or middle grade fiction, I would think a similar experience would be invaluable.)  Every week, I see the same books — the flower fairy series, a series about children who turn into animals, the usual Cornelia Funke and Harry Potter books.  Scooby Dooby Doo, who manages to make it into my son’s backpack every single week. Good books all, especially since they are actually being read.

But there are the days when I’m shelving books and something unexpected slips off the cart and into my hands, like a gift. I can’t resist — I flip through the pages, read a few, and before I know it, I’ve been transported to another time and place.  I’m gulping words as fast as I can when the morning announcements break in and jolt me back to reality.

Later, walking down the halls to class, watching the kids jostle by, I see them a little differently than before.  I wonder which one picked out that book, and why.  I wonder if he or she is a member of my tribe — the word addicts — and what will happen, where that addiction will lead.  Although we don’t know each other, we share a secret, we’ve met, if only across the pages of the same book.  And as I look at these kids and at the path facing them in the future, I find that comforting.

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