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It’s summer.

My car, with which during the school year I drive the highway so often I could do it in my sleep, stays in the garage. I take long walks instead. Occasionally with my husband, less often with one of my children, even more rarely with the whole family.  We’re at the stage in life where there are games for the kids to play and friends to connect with and social media calling to them at all hours, it seems — a constant distraction. So my walks are mostly solitary. I wander the beach, watching enviously as young families build sand castles and catch minnows and play tag with the waves.

Sometimes it’s early and the parents are bleary-eyed, sipping their coffee. It feels like just last weekend that I was them, desperate for just a little more sleep, but loathe to say no to an early morning trip to the beach and donuts on the sand, when one of the hardest parts of parenting was getting them to hold still long enough to cover them with sunscreen.

I’ve taken to collecting sea glass. There’s a beach not far from us where it can be found almost by the handfuls. But I prefer a less-crowded spot a little further away, where the glass is harder to find. Some days I come home with nothing, some days with a scant two pieces. Yet somehow all the searching makes me treasure each piece more.

I keep the pieces in an old apothecary jar, spotted by my husband and one of the kids on an excursion this summer. It’s a thing of beauty, tall and curved and delicate, the glass so thin I hold my breath each time I lift it from the shelf to add another piece. It’s so large that at this rate it will take me years to fill it, and there’s comfort in that thought.

Unless, of course, it slips from my hands and shatters. A disaster I regularly imagine, each piece a wicked sharp-edged weapon beyond anyone’s skill to repair.

And yet.

This morning as I held a tiny piece of sea glass, I wondered what it once was. Bright blue, it might have come from a bottle, but it’s equally possible it was once someone’s heirloom. A beloved vase. A perfume bottle.  A frame, sun-glinted on a mother’s dresser.  The loss perhaps not heart-breaking, but mourned all the same.

And now that identical glass sits in my hand. Its sharp edges have been worn away, and time and the roughness of the waves have transformed it into something else. Something entirely different, yet still treasured.  Stripped to the very essence of what it once was and lovely all on its own.

I still hold my breath as I replace the jar upon the shelf. I still treasure it in its current form. But I’m coming to realize that sometimes, beauty can be found after the breakage too.

 

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I never used to have gray hair.  Or wrinkles.  Or a loud voice.  I do not blame these things on age.  I blame them on the little being who came to live with us almost 10 years ago.  The one who likes to jump off tall lifeguard stands (resulting in a knocked-out filling), run helter-skelter down the stairs (resulting in a scar on his chin) and bomb along on uneven pavement at 100 miles an hour.  (That’s the scar over his upper lip.  We like to pretend he plays hockey to explain it.)

You know, the little being with the Y chromosone.

We had a pretty quiet life, my daughter and I.  We read books, and took long walks, and painted and colored and managed to do all those things with a lovely stillness.  Sure, we got rowdy once in a while — who doesn’t — but we are both on the introverted side, so the rowdiness never lasted for too long before we’d settle down on the couch, cuddled under a blanket, to snuggle and look at our favorite stories.

And then — BAM — I had a boy.  And almost every day since he learned to talk, and then walk, life has been a big adventure.  He’s an extrovert, as wiggly as a puppy, and he loves to sing and whistle and in general just MAKE NOISE. Even when we are doing a quiet activity.  Which — surprise surprise — is actually no longer quiet.

He also likes to push the envelope. A lot. And he’s good at it.

There are days when I wake up and tell the universe I’ve grown quite enough spiritually, thank you. I don’t need any more parenting lessons.

And then I went to the Writer Unboxed Conference last week, which was chock-full of good writing advice by luminaries such as Brunonia Barry, Lisa Cron, Donald Maass, Ray Rhamey and Heather Webb. Meg Rosoff was there too, leading a class on voice, but all of her writing advice was lost on me after one of her comments.

She was talking about being true to yourself, even if that’s hard for other people to understand.  Meg is funny and brash and the kind of person you want to just sit and listen to — like very few people around. Then she said that her mother, who is in her 80s, still gets upset when Meg does something she doesn’t like.  She’ll say ‘You always have to do it your own way, don’t you?’

And Meg looked at the class and said “What other way should I do it?  I’m me. Of course I’ll do it my way.”

Those words hit me so hard I couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the class. Because I’ve had that conversation with my exuberant boy more times than I care to admit.   But of course he’d do it his own way — what other way should he do it?  Mine?

Well yes, sometimes.  In matters of major safety. And public good manners.  But the rest of the time, why should I expect a nine-year-old boy to do something the way a (insert age here) adult should?

My kid is funny, and outgoing, and so energetic there are days I’d like a nap by 8 a.m. He’s the polar opposite of me in almost every way.  He has a huge heart, and a huge imagination, and every single day he stretches me as a person and as a parent.  Sometimes that stretching is painful. Sometimes, by not accepting my ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ he makes me think about why I said no in the first place, what my answer is based on, and who it is benefiting. Sometimes he drives me to distraction and to a glass of wine.  But always, always, always, he drives me to be better — even if it’s because I wasn’t my best that day.

I want my kids to be individuals when they grow up.  I want them to think for themselves, to contribute to society, to be good parents and good citizens and just all around good people. I want them to figure out how to make the world better by seeing it in a way that no one else before them has — with their own eyes and their own hearts.  But to do that, they have to discover themselves, and discovery is an ongoing process — it doesn’t begin at age 21 when they move out of the house.

It begins now.  By doing things their own way. And sometimes as a parent, that means getting out of the way and letting them.

self portrait

self portrait

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Lately when riding, I am a hot mess. (That’s the technical term.  The actual term used by my instructor is unprintable here.) There are so many things going on — my seat isn’t balanced, my legs slide forward, my knees are jammed up against the knee roll, my reins get floppy — hence, the hot mess. (In fairness to my past riding self, it’s not all bad all the time — but compared to how I used to be, it certainly feels that way.)

This week, my instructor brought me back to basics.  She took a long whip, threaded it between my elbows and behind my back, and told me to keep it there while cantering.  Lean forward and hunch your shoulders toward your ears (my favorite riding position, apparently) and the whip pops out. Humiliation galore. (And an exciting ride if it happens to hit your horse on the way down.)

It’s an old trick, but it worked.  To keep the whip in place, I had to roll my shoulders down and lean back. Which centered my seat. Which fixed my leg. Which got my hands out of my lap and improved the way I held the reins.

One small change, and everything fell into place.

Writing is like that too.  Looking at an entire manuscript is overwhelming and can make you feel like a failure.  But if you pick just one thing to work on — your dialogue, for example, or the way you transition between scenes — one of two things will happen:

Either you’ll fix the main problem, and everything else will snap into place, or…

You’ll find out you have more work to do.  Which isn’t the end of the world, I promise.  It just means picking the next one thing. Fixing that. And moving on.

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(And if you’ve read this far, here’s a reward — one of my favorite riding videos is at the end of this page.)

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I spent 45 minutes in line today to get my turkey, and another few minutes at the garage getting air put in my tires, and I cannot tell you how grateful I was to be able to do both things. Sometimes in the rush of the holidays (shopping! baking! and my ‘favorite,’ cleaning!) it’s easy to lose track of just how fortunate I am. Fortunate to have the time and the money to be able to afford a turkey, fortunate to have a farm down the street that raises birds with care and humane practices, fortunate to have a car that’s safe and reliable to get there and back — the list goes on and on. I’m afraid, sometimes, that if I list all the good things in my life the wicked fairy from Sleeping Beauty will come to curse them, so I’ll whisper the rest of my blessings to myself.

I’m lucky too that both my children’s schools run food drives during the holidays, making it easy to help out others who might not be that fortunate this year.  Demand for assistance is up since a temporary boost in the nation’s food stamp program came to an end.  If you have a moment, try to catch this Diane Rehm show on hunger in America — it is worth listening to. (And if you can’t find it to hear, at least check out the comments listed below the description.) States from New Hampshire to Texas are seeing more hungry people, and oftentimes the biggest sufferers are the smallest — our children.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I wish you a bountiful holiday season.

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I have terrible muscle memory.  Ages ago, the first several times I tried aerobics, I always went left when everyone else went right. When I rode, my biggest fear was rarely the size of the jumps — it was doing them in the wrong order. (From personal experience, I can tell you there are few more humiliating experiences then being alone in the arena and having the buzzer sound with someone yelling “OFF COURSE!” Not that that ever happened to me.  Ahem.)

On the flip side, once I get that memory, I have it for years. (Seriously. Anyone want to see my step aerobics routine from the 1990s?) Writing is a bit like that, too.  If I can get my butt in the seat, if I can doodle around for a 45 minutes or so, the words start to come without my thinking about them. My fingers and my brain wake up and remember what to do so long as I stay out of their way.

These days, I’m trying to instill a different kind of muscle memory.  I sit by my children at night, taping together a Halloween costume, hearing them recite Spanish phrases, helping with new math. I do this not because I am so enamored of new math (which is different from the new math I had as a child, which must now be old math and is still ghastly) but because I’m hoping that I can instill in them, in their minds and their hearts and in their very muscles themselves, how much they are loved. I want them to remember without even thinking about it, to simply know it the way their lungs know how to breathe, so that when our relationship isn’t as simple, when the questions are so much harder than  How do you say cold in Spanish? and What is the lowest common denominator?, their bodies will remember what their brains may not.

Does muscle memory come easily to you? When is it useful?  And if you have time, check out this gorgeous video which includes footage of my riding crush David O’Connor almost going off-course at the Sydney Olympics.  (It happens around minute 13, but the whole video is worth a watch.)

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I’ve been cheating on you, my pretties.  Whilst you thought I was here, slogging away at the computer, I was actually there, eating scones with clotted cream, drinking pots of tea, and walking about the Irish countryside.

You know all that stuff about how poetic the Irish are?  It’s true.  One rainy day, I asked an old codger how long a particular hike was, and he turned to me and said “How long is a piece of string?”

(The answer, as I found out after walking for two hours, is damn long.)

I got to see my husband down a pint, show my daughter the Book of Kells, and watch my son charm the local populace in two languages. (If the Irish for hello didn’t work, there’s always his signature “Hellloooo, ladies!”)

I watched my parents and MIL experience Ireland for the first time.

And saw a white horse upon a green hill. (A gray and brown horse too.)

I did a little tiny bit of research for my next book.  I’d like to write it in this sweet cottage.

Tea, anyone?

Failing that, if I ever make the best seller’s list I’ll celebrate by staying at this country home, which I didn’t discover until my last day of the trip. Anyone care to join me?

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A writing board I am on is asking tough questions these days. Questions like ‘Why do you write?’ and ‘Will you stop writing if you don’t get published?’ (Usually the questions are more like ‘Does anybody want to meet for drinks on Friday?’ and ‘Who is hotter, James McAvoy or Daniel Craig?”) A few of the writers on the board have their work out on submission to agents and editors, so the questions have a renewed sense of urgency.

I write because I am an extremely internal person, and writing things down helps me to process them. It’s a way for me to work things out. I tend to have the self-awareness of a starfish, and oftentimes I don’t realize a problem is bothering me until it shows up on the page.  And then I’m all “Hey, I wrote about X today.  I wonder why that came up?” And my husband just shakes his head.

I write because I am a storyteller at heart, and I always have been. As a child, I told my sister sweeping sagas about a little girl who looked just like us but lived on the moon.  I tell those same stories to my children now. I kept journals for years, well before I’d earned a byline. And when I have been too busy or too tired to write or make up stories, I’ve retold classics like The Wizard of Oz, adding elaborate embellishments.

I would write and tell stories even if I was never published, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be.  But for me, writing a whole novel with the single goal of being published is off-putting.  It’s too big of a journey, with too large of a disappointment at the end if it doesn’t work out. I can only write the way I write, one page at a time, with the goal of a cohesive whole at the end.

Looking at publication directly is too blinding, like staring at the sun. I can only look at it with soft eyes, at the peripherals that surround it: Crafting a readable story with a viable plot and characters that hold my heart. If I do that, if my work is the best it can be, I’ve done everything I can do.  Anything else is beyond my control.

Why do you write?

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Back when I started writing Evenfall, I had very little time for writer’s block.  I had one, then two, small children, a barn full of horses to keep fed and cleaned, and a very busy freelance job. Writing fiction was a break, a moment stolen from other responsibilities. It was fun.

Today, the horses are gone, and the children are bigger and require less care than I like to admit.  I’ve made a conscious decision to cut back on freelancing, and while I’m still busy, I have two days a week where I block out time just for writing fiction.  And every now and then, guess what?  The words, they don’t come.  In the hopes you might find it helpful, I’m sharing what I do when that happens.

Don’t panic.  Okay, maybe I panic a little — this is me we’re talking about, after all.  But YOU shouldn’t panic.  Remind yourself that this has happened before, it will happen again, and it’s a natural part of the writing process.  Really.

Work on something else. Put your manuscript away for a bit.  Work on your query letter, your synopsis, even a blog post for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, just the act of writing can help jumpstart your process.

Zone out.  And I don’t mean on Facebook.  Do something intense that engages your brain and your body fully, so that you can’t think about anything else but what you are doing.  I’m not talking about a nice walk in the woods, either.  You need something that shakes your brain synapses loose.

My activity of choice used to be riding, because if you stop concentrating while on horseback you are liable to find yourself on your back looking up at the sky.  Since I’ve ended my equine addiction, fencing is a handy substitute — my son fights like a crab, scuttling back and then charging in for an attack, and he’s very excited that he has permission to get stabby with me, so my full concentration is required.  If you don’t have someone willing to stab you, try a Zumba class, yoga — anything physical that fully engages you. You don’t have to be good at it, you just have to get moving.  I don’t know why, but this type of activity usually works to get me typing again.

Take a break.  If a deadline isn’t breathing down your neck, put the project away.  Box it up, stick it under your bed, put it in your office and shut the door.  Let it hang out somewhere where it won’t make you crazy.  Give it two weeks.  You’ll come back with fresh eyes and it will be easier to see whatever problem your subconscious is wrestling with.

Set limits.  If nothing else has worked, try this — get a kitchen timer, or use the app on your phone, and set it for fifteen minutes.  Open your document, turn the timer on, and get to work.  When that timer goes off, get up and walk away, even if you are in the middle of a sentence.  You’re done — that’s all the time you have to write today. Do the same thing for the next three days.

By the end of those three days, I’m usually dying to get to work, and my block has vanished.  If you try it, let me know what you think.

What are your tips for getting past writer’s block?

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I’m taking fencing classes.  It’s good exercise and it makes my brain work in different ways.  I will never, ever be good at it.  Part of it is I just don’t have the right physical gifts — my hand-eye coordination is lacking, for one, and I don’t have the speedy reflexes you need to avoid being skewered, for two.  I’m doing it for fun, and it is fun, even though I got whumped by a nine-year-old last week.

But my instructor has been to the Olympics several times, and was at one point ranked number one in the country. He’ll demonstrate a move, or take a few quick steps, and you can see the passion and grace and talent, the sheer skill that makes him a joy to watch.

What you don’t see are the hours and hours of practice, the time he spent living overseas away from family and friends, to train with the best. You don’t see the bruises and injuries and missed parties and celebrations and birthdays. Those hours, put in when I was a teen and hanging with friends or watching Star Trek reruns, are the main reason that at my age, I’ll never be good.  There just aren’t enough hours left.

I read recently that an expert who is someone who has made all the mistakes possible within a narrow field. It’s a line that made me laugh, but I’ve been thinking about this all week, since Steve Jobs died.  He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.  He made lots, and learned from them, and failed better, as the quote goes.

But he also put the time in.  To be an expert takes time — time to make those mistakes, to recover from them, to apply what you’ve learned, to fail again and fail better.  Whether you’re a fencing champion, relentlessly practicing in a cold country thousands of miles away from home, a baseball player who throws and bats well into the dark, a writer who puts down a sentence, removes five words, adds two, and does that again and again, there is no expertise without time.

And when you choose to specialize, to become an expert, you’re choosing to spend your days on this, but not on that.  On an Olympic medal, but not your best friend’s birthday.  On a championship, but not on a family dinner.  On a handful of glittering sentences that hold a book together, but not on an afternoon with the kids at the beach.

There’s no right choice, just a hard one.  What do you choose?

A finite amount of time

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Only a handful of days are left before school starts.  I’m starting to freak out a little.

So, to distract myself, here’s the great underwear caper story:  Last summer, a group of people who shall remain nameless (I don’t think they read this blog, but just in case) decided to prank another person, who shall also remain nameless because I am terrified she will retaliate.  The first group was tossing out fairly lame ideas, so I reasonably suggested that if they were going to go to all the trouble to do something, they should do something big, like steal her underwear and leave it in a public place.  It was a SUGGESTION, people.  I had nothing to do with the subsequent stealing of undergarments.  (Although I may have suggested where they turned up, on a very public beach road, a few days later.)  Nor did I have anything to do with how they were shrink-wrapped around the victim’s mini-van.  Jeez!

So, this summer, all my undergarments were stolen, dipped in water, and frozen solid, which at least helped with the heat.  And it could have been much worse, I suppose.  The friend in question has major connections — she has the cell phone number of the ice cream truck.  For days, I kept imaging my things being passed out along with the ice pops and Good Humor bars.  Although I am still missing one pair …. which is what’s stopping me from posting photos.  : )

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That’s the sound summer makes as it is flies by.  Can you hear it?  The kids start school in just over a week, and there’s still a long list of things we want to do.  More time!  I need more time!

But the time we’ve had so far has been pretty special.  Long days on the beach, lazy days at the pool, afternoons with friends and family where we can have real conversations, not just the hurried sentences that carry us over during the rest of the year.

The menu

Highlights for me include eating here. It’s the third year we’ve been, and it is a magical night under a huge white tent rimmed with fairy lights,  filled with fun and sparkling conversation and a meal you just won’t believe.  And good friends, of course.  If you ever have a chance to attend, gulp at the price tag and then sign over your credit card — it’s totally worth it.

I also read this, which was magical in a completely different way.  I found myself thinking about the book and the language it was written in for days after.  I think it is going to be huge, and I highly recommend it.  (Erin also posts short stories on her blog every Friday — you can find it over on the links list to the right.)

What else happened this summer?  Well, my children each grew a few inches.  I went to a family reunion slightly sunburned, wearing a large brim hat for protection, and realized after I saw the photos I looked vaguely like a crazy southern spinster aunt who writes gothic romance.  (It wasn’t the look I was going for.)  In the frenzy of friending relatives on Facebook after, I forgot to mention I have an author page there as well for them to like.  (Cousins, if you are reading this, help the crazy spinster writer out.) I did a guest post at Writer Unboxed about the secret pages on my website.  We tried to rescue a baby bird, whom the children christened Annie.  Alas, the sun did not come out for Annie, and we had a burial ceremony in the back yard.  I read Ronald Dahl’s autobiographies, BOY and FLYING SOLO, and loved them so much I’m adding his biography to my list. I almost got sprayed by a skunk, I got pooped on by a seagull, and I had all of my underwear stolen and frozen. (If you ask nicely, I might follow up on that story with details.)

How’s your summer going? 

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Yes, I am referencing a Taylor Swift song in the headline.  Don’t hate me.  There’s nothing that soothes the pain of a poor review like blasting “Mean” and dancing around the kitchen with your daughter. Try it sometime.

However, today I am not writing about reviews, mean or otherwise.  Today, I am over at Women’s Fiction Writers, where Amy Nathan has kindly agreed to interview me despite the fact that I have been known to literally fall on my face when wearing high heels. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have stopped me from trying. Go there, and the non sequitur will become clear.

Also, I am working on my Harley post for later this week, but here is a photo to tide you over:

So sweet ... when he's sleeping.

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I still have HIGH HOPES for this blog.  I have a fun slobbering beast update all planned, but unfortunately the slobbering beast is making it difficult to actually write about him, as I am too busy dealing with the chaos he creates to actually sit down for longer than thirty seconds.  I swear, he and my son are in league.  BUT … do not give up hope.  I should get to it this week, even if I have to give him Benadryl (Side note:  I did actually have medical approval to Benadryl the heck out of him last year, when he swallowed a wasp.  Before going down that giant maw, the wasp stung the holy crap out of his face, making it swell up so that the flesh over his eyes was the size of walnuts.  He did in fact konk out, and it was the quietest evening we’ve had since Harley came to live here.)

In the MEANTIME, I am offering several shiny distractions:

The Secret Writer has an interview up with me.  Thanks, Calum, for your thoughtful questions and attention to detail!  (Plus, it’s my first international interview — do I get frequent flier miles with that?)

Tartitude ran a fabulous Mary Stewart contest (I posted it on my Facebook Author page — you do know that I have a Facebook Author page that you can like, don’t you???) and I may or may not have entered said contest with a tiny snippet from my work in progress.

Finally, between the cold and the rain and the cold and the thunderstorms and the cold and the tornado warnings, my little secret garden is still managing to come to life:

Tucked away...

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BOOM! Goes the book.

Last week (possibly the week before — life seems to be moving at the speed of light these days) I attended Cindy Pon’s Diversity Tour in Cambridge. I learned several things, the first being that Cindy, no slouch herself, rolls with some amazing authors.

The panel discussed, among other topics, how to get YA readers to look at books outside their comfort zone.  One of the authors noted how, growing up, she never read books with heroines that looked like her – they simply didn’t exist then.  What made her continue reading certain authors and genres was that the writer managed to make an emotional connection – a point of contact — that stretched across physical and gender characteristics.

Simple and elementary, but it struck home with me.  As a kid, I loved Robert Parker’s novel Ceremony. (I still do.) I read it somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, when a friend whose father ran a Woolworth’s gave me a copy as a birthday gift.  If physical similarities were all that mattered to readers, I would have identified with the misguided April Kyle, a pretty blonde teenager from suburbia.  But of course, it was Spenser the wise-cracking detective who captured my heart, who made me think about honor and codes of conduct and the value of loyalty and love, important stuff for an evolving pre-teen.  The point of contact Parker made with my then-self lasted until his death this year, and I still can’t bring myself to read his most recent book, knowing it is the last.

The second point, made by author Malinda Lo, was that YA authors don’t have the luxury of starting their novels with backstory.  They need to get right to the story — BOOM — and keep it moving. Otherwise they’ll lose their readers.

I love stories that take their time unwinding, but ya know what?  Lo is right, and not just for YA authors.  Here’s how I know:  I’d planned to buy only Cindy’s fabulous new book Fury of the Phoenix, but the signing line was long and I found myself browsing.  I picked up The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, read five pages, and was completely hooked.  I bought it, read it in a night, and wound up downloading the second in the series the next day.

Will I be starting my next novel with a car crash or demon attack?  Probably not.  (Though you never know.) But will I be reading each and every word to make sure it grabs my reader by throat, and keeps her turning pages, maybe even skipping them, until the very end?  Abso-stinkin-lutely.

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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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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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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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I know, I know, I’ve been slacking.  I started out with such good intentions, but somehow my three posts a week have dwindled to an anorexic one or two.  I promise to be better in April.  It will be SPRING!  and WARM! and everyone will be HAPPY! (Those of us who live in New England are such optimistic fools.)

Anyhow, I have been busy.  I have finally established my Facebook Author page (or rather, my sister did it for me) and I would take it as the greatest favor if you would hie yourself over there and like it.  Or me.  Or whatever one is supposed to do on The Facebook. (Random  elderly relative story — a favorite aunt is in a nursing home, and periodically she would call us up and say “I played The WOO today,” and cackle like a maniac.  It sounded vaguely dirty and I always covered the children’s ears if we were on speakerphone.  Well, it turns out The WOO was Wii, the other bane of my existence because it is the joy of my six-year-old’s life.  So, around here we tend to stick a capital THE in front of any newfangled technology.)

Also, I am being interviewed by the charming and lovely Debra Driza, no mean writer herself, and among other things we are commiserating over our BAD DOG stories.  Because I didn’t want to horrify her too much, I left out the one where my 110 pound unneutered show dog took a, um, special liking to my 100 pound friend.  He would back her into a corner, then very gently reach out one paw to wrap around her shoulders….

Come back Thursday for a better behaved blog post.

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I am not doing writerly things this week.  (Writerly things roughly translating to mean hiding in my office in my pajamas until noon, attempting to put down words and surfing the internet in hopes of inspiration.)  I am out and about doing the opposite of writerly things, and I promise to share those things with you later this week.

In the meantime, my blogging self is also acting the part of gadfly.  Today you can find me over at Writer Unboxed, one of my very favorite writing sites.  I’m thrilled to be a small part of it.  Take a gander and let me know what you think.  I promise to return soon.

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Editing, Actually

I have a set playlist for the holidays when it come to movies.  Every year, my husband and I kick off the season by watching Home for the Holidays the night before Thanksgiving.  (If you haven’t seen it, watch it next year — it will make your holidays seem blissful by comparison.)  Then, in no particular order, we always watch Christmas in Connecticut, Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, Lethal Weapon 1, and Love, Actually. (I always manage to sneak Amends, Season 3, episode 10 of Buffy in there too — I’m a rebel like that.)

As much as I love all these holiday shows (and yes, Lethal Weapon counts) only one helped me make my book better.  Coincidentally, that’s the one that has Hugh Grant dancing.  Amazing, isn’t it?  I think we need a shot of Hugh dancing.  After all, any post with a picture of Hugh can’t be that bad.

Gratuitous dancing shot

 

How, you ask, did this come to pass?  (The improvement to the book, not the picture.  That picture is not actually the picture I wanted to post.  The picture I wanted to post appeared a few years ago in Vanity Fair, and I believe showed Mr. Grant dancing in a loincloth during his Oxford days.  A copy of that picture would make it a Merry Christmas, indeed.)

Well, since I love the movie so much, my husband bought it for me a few years ago and sat through the ‘extras’ feature with me.  I know the movie didn’t get fabulous reviews when it came out, but I personally think Richard Curtis is amazing, and in the extras he talks about the bits that didn’t make it in, and why.  There’s a whole subplot involving a family across the world that’s suffering in a drought.  They had to film it, pay the actors for it, put it in the movie — and then they cut it out. It wasn’t bad — there was nothing wrong with it — it just distracted from the action of the main story.

That, more than any fiction class I’ve taken, got the ‘kill your darlings’ message through to me.  It made me go back and look very hard at my manuscript, and make sure that Every. Single. Scene. advanced the plot in some way.  If it didn’t, I gritted my teeth, hit the delete button, and cut it from the book.  (I did, however, make sure to save it in an ‘extras’ file, because you never know.)   It was painful, but it made my manuscript stronger.

So this holiday season, if you’re a writer struggling with a book, rent Love, Actually. Enjoy the movie, then watch the extras, and then go kill some darlings of your own.

 

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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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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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Here’s a secret — my daughter, at the age of nine, has yet to see The Little Mermaid. And it’s not because I forgot, or couldn’t find it in my movie queue, or happened to overlook it at the dvd store. It’s on porpoise. (Cue the bad pun/mean mother music here.)

When I was pregnant, I might have been just a teensy bit hepped up. I saw the movie shortly before she was born, and for some reason it really ticked me off.  No daughter of mine was going to give up her kingdom for a boy!  She was going to take kick-boxing, not ballet, wear jeans instead of dresses, and never, ever, trade in her fins for feet just for some dude with nice hair.

Ahem. Has anyone seen my daughter?

I’m thrilled, of course, that she loves ballet, that she’s graceful and delicate and beautiful.  I’m impressed by her very girly sense of style.  But the moral of the story is, watch what you say in the delivery room when you are on drugs, because it will come back to bite you.

Nope, no subtext here

Despite this, I’m not budging on the mermaid business. I don’t know why Ariel bothers me so much more than the other Disney heroines.  At the heart of it, I suspect, is her willingness to actually alter her body for love, and the way that body is rejected/overlooked by the prince, despite what those changes cost the poor little princess.  (I know, I’m reading too much into it, but it’s a subtext that makes me crazy.)

So, when she brings up Ariel, I counter with Nancy Drew, with Laura Ingalls, with Kitty Jones, with any one of a hundred of fictional heroines who can help her find her way along the path to a confident adulthood, a path that’s slippery enough on its own without some little mermaid adding to it.

I’m all about the strong heroines.  When she’s older, I can’t wait to introduce her to Harriet Vane, to Jane Whitfield, to Elizabeth Bennet and Claire Beauchamp and perhaps even my own strong Evenfall heroine, Gert Murphy.

Of course, she’s already met my very favorite, because I have a life-sized cut out of her in my office.

Buffy

(It counts!!!!! I own Joss Whedon comic books and they totally count as literature!)

Don’t forget, post your favorite heroine in the comments before Thursday for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Heroine’s Bookshelf!

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