I turned my revisions into my agent yesterday. Once I had attached the MS and hit send, I felt about a second or two of utter panic, and then it was all good. I actually felt lightened, relieved, unburdened. Not that working on the revisions had been a burden, but I worked so hard on them, and have been carrying the MS around in my head for weeks. Every day since my marathon Fall Break writing sessions, I’ve opened up the document and worked on it. I’ve re-worked scenes in my head while running, or while in the shower, while waiting in the carpool line. I’ve had moments of panic and moments of euphoria. So it’s nice to get a small break from all that, even if a part of me is, of course, still anxious about what she will think about my revisions. Will she love them? Just like them? Hate them? Will she think: Why the heck did I offer her representation in the first place?

This fall will definitely go down as one to be remembered — in very, very, most excellent ways. But I’ve also been insanely busy — juggling teaching 6 classes, revising and writing, working through some major editorial and publication changes at Literary Mama, meeting deadlines on freelance editing work, all while still being a mama, and a wife, and the chief supplier of tasty (or not-so-tasty as in the case of an experiment with a vegan mushroom stroganoff dish gone horribly wrong) meals to my family. My husband has stepped up and helped quite a bit, and the kids have been very supportive. I am so thankful that all this is happening when they are older and I am in such awe of writer mamas who are juggling it all AND tending to very small children and their very large needs.

My 1/2 marathon is also a smidgeon over two weeks away, and now I feel I’ve freed up a little mental space to think about that. I am feeling good about my training, despite the sloggy ten mile run last weekend. On Saturday I plan on getting up early and setting out to run 11-12 miles. That will be my last distance run until the 1/2,  because we will be in Maryland the weekend before the race. While I think I can pull off a ten miler that weekend, I may not be able to do 11 or 12 miles. I’m so looking forward to the race! I love the City of Oaks race, because it’s such a treat to run through the empty, downtown streets, and such a fun event in general. Do I have a goal for this year’s 1/2? Only to enjoy the race and to try and pace myself better so I can shave a couple of minutes off of last year’s time.

On Friday I picked the kids up from school, and we raced home to get last minute packing done before heading to the Shakori Hills music festival. My husband left on Thursday with a good friend (the husband of one of my close friends — we camp at Shakori together twice a year), and they took all the camping gear so the site would be all set up for us once we arrived. I couldn’t get out of work fast enough on Friday. I was very ready for a weekend of being unplugged. I was pretty exhausted by the time we pulled into the grassy parking lot at the farm, but one veggie burger and cold beer later, all was right with the world.

My kids love the freedom of camping at Shakori. There are several families who go together each year and we camp at the same spot. The kids roam around day and night in packs, while the adults cart folding chairs and wheeled coolers around to the different stages, where we set up shop and listen to the music. The dynamic has changed a bit now that most of the kids are teens or tweens (they probably think it’s changed for the better), but they still have a great time. We grown-up people try not to think too hard about what trouble they might be getting up to, but they are all good kids, so I don’t think we have to worry. When we do make it back to the campsite for bed it’s not unusual to see them all up still at midnight, sitting under the “food tent” and swapping war stories from the middle school or high school trenches. I love seeing these kids — who don’t get together like this but twice a year — come together as old friends. I know I would have loved the Shakori Hills experience when I was their age. It’s pretty awesome for the grown-ups, too.

We didn’t get back until Sunday at 2:00 (another rainy, mud-drenched exit from the farm — blech) and then I had to eat some lunch and turn around and try and get a long run in. That was the worst. I couldn’t skip the long run, though, because that would have undone all the weeks of work I’ve been training for, and the 1/2 marathon is only a few weeks away. So I left at 3:00 and somehow slogged through 10 miles (I was supposed to hit 12). Things I learned: a) running on a Sunday when my body is used to a Saturday long run is BAD and b) a bowl of lentil soup 45 minutes before a long distance run does not make for  a happy tummy. My body was so mad at me for putting it through that and it just about fell apart when I got home. I spent the rest of the afternoon checked out from life in my PJs and fuzzy socks. I’m looking forward to getting my rhythm back for Saturday’s long run.

Routine and rhythm are not only important for good writing days, but for good running days, too.

 

I’ve spent the last two weeks elbow-deep in the edits my agent sent me and I’ve had a blast doing them! I’ve discovered that I really like the revision process. It helps that the bulk of the revisions involve character development, which is super fun to do. I spent the first two days after I received her notes processing the edits and the direction they would go. I read a ton about the revision process, and let that information percolate. There is so much great advice out there, and so many writers have different strategies to share — my advice would be to take what you feel will work. I felt overwhelmed at first by the advice , and worried that because I wasn’t doing x, y, or z that I was not revising correctly, but then I had to let go of that worry so I could move forward. There is no ONE revision strategy. After I had processed her suggestions, I took her edit letter and marked off which chunks of test I would tackle first. I numbered them 1-4, marked deadlines on my calendar, and set to work.

The timing was perfect because Fall Break fell on this past Friday and on Monday, so I had two days of some solid, uninterrupted writing time. I accomplished a tremendous amount on Friday, then Saturday had a so-so day. I should know better than to try and write while kids are pulling me (mentally and physically) in different directions. There’s nothing more frustrating then trying to work through the creative process while being constantly interrupted. I also did an 11-mile training run in the morning and that kind of kicked my butt. I think I needed to eat more during the week, because while I did manage to run the whole 11 miles, I felt pretty beat up after. I was happy to see how quickly I rebounded physically, though.  Last year, when I was training for the same 1/2 marathon, a run that distance would’ve left me sore for at least two days. Lately, I am sore the day of, but feel better the next day. I ran on Monday and Tuesday, too, and felt good.

I also did a ton of research on Saturday about a popular social networking site out there that has contributed to horrific cyber bullying. I signed up for an account about a week ago, and it was depressing to scroll through pages belonging to kids and see all the hideousness that is out there. Yuck. I had to sort all of that out in my mind before I could sit down and weave it coherently into the story.

On Sunday I had a crisis of confidence about my revisions so far. What if they’re all crap? What if I send the MS to my agent and she emails me saying, “oh, this has all been a huge mistake. I can’t sell this for you!”? 

Sunday night I reworked the intro pages several times and none of it felt right AT ALL. Finally, before bed, some light in my head clicked on (unusual for me for that time of the day, I’ll tell you), and I saw how the intro pages needed to go. Hooray!

On Monday I felt better again, and in love with everything I’ve done so far.

Ditto Tuesday– thank goodness. I spent a fun hour doing a search and replace for the word ‘”just” — a word which apparently I JUST couldn’t stop using. Ugh.

Today I’m taking a break from the MS (stopping on a high note is the way to go!) because I have too much class prep (reading up on the Anna Johnson surrogacy case from 1990 for Gender Studies) and student meetings. My husband is printing out a hard copy of the MS for me today, so I will begin reading it tomorrow. I’ve read the whole thing through several times on my Kindle app, but I want to look at the actual, pages-in-the-hand version.

I am probably more excited than I should be for the chance tomorrow (and Monday!) to have the day off work thanks to Fall Break, and spend as much of it as I can writing in my home office. I am looking forward to comfy pants (it’s all about the small pleasures!), a pot of green tea, and just me and my MacBook Air (and all our furry critters who like to hang out with me when I’m home).

I have done an insane amount of grading this week and an insane amount of meeting with desperate students. On Tuesday I got into work at 7:30 and worked until 3:30. Then I changed into my running clothes and pounded out three miles until it was time to pick up my daughter from her after school activity. I needed to put some serious distance between me and all those student exams. My goal had been to get close to all the grading done so I could steal some writing time Wednesday morning and Thursday, in preparation for Friday’s marathon work session at home. I try and always follow that sound writing advice I came across somewhere that you should always stop for the day when you are on a roll, because then it will be easier to pick up where you left off. If you stop when you are blocked, you will waste so much time the next writing session trying to work through that impasse. So I wrote until I could stick a mental bookmark in the spot, and then when I ran today I sorted out some things in my head. I think I’ll be ready tomorrow to dive back into it. I can write at work, but it never feels completely comfortable to me. I’m looking forward to having my own space around me tomorrow.

I was telling a good friend who called me today that I think running has made me a more disciplined writer. Running has taught me about pushing through walls (and pain), about the importance of training, and about making goals for myself. I love what Susan Dennard has to say about the importance of routine when it comes to writing, and training for a race involves that same focus on routine. I do my long weekly runs on Saturday morning, and my body is used to that. On the occasions that I’ve had to switch a long run to a Sunday, for example, my body always takes a little more time to warm up to that change. Writing a book is pretty similar to running a long race, except in a race you might get a medal, and when you write you get to weave a story, and end up with this wonderful collection of characters at the end of it.

When I run, all the loose ends and problems I couldn’t solve during a writing session often get worked out in my head. It’s like I have a giant Connect Four game in my head and the ideas and characters are colored tokens. Running helps them slide into the right slots, so everything gets sorted out. For me, a huge part of writing is having the time in my head to work things out.

Today I ran the greenway near my daughter’s school and crossed a road to run past another elementary school. On my way back I heard kids calling to me from the fence at the top of a small hill. The hill was covered in ivy and brambles, but someone had thrown a football over the fence and they wanted it back. There was a row of kids standing on the other side of the fence — about five boys, and two girls. When I retrieved the ball I held it up but of course they all wanted it. I made a conscious decision to throw it to the girl closest to me. Her eyes lit up when she caught the ball and she took off like lightning with the ball tucked under her arm. Girl power!

Monday last week was pouring rain and I’d had such a crappy week the week before with my classes. My students weren’t doing their reading, I was tired from pulling out all the stops trying to spark some interest, I was feeling a little like a failure in both my teaching life, and my writing life. And then later that morning I got the best email ever from an agent who had requested my full the week before. Her enthusiasm for what she had read so far (about 60 pages) just leapt off the screen. She mentioned two of my characters by name. She just sounded so very excited in ways no one had ever sounded before. She was an agent on my “A” list — a very short list (it was a work in progress) of agents I really, really wanted because something about them — some things about them — really clicked with me. She told me she could see herself finishing in a couple of days, and was looking forward to getting back to me then.

I was deliriously happy. I also couldn’t concentrate on anything, especially not the huge stack of student papers I had to grade. I probably babbled a lot in my classes that day, and the next one, too. I probably babbled to everyone I ran into. I checked my email every chance I could get. On Wednesday I just had a feeling that I would hear something from her. I tried to brace myself by imagining the worst — that she would send me an email saying something like “while I enjoyed the first part of your book, I found I just didn’t connect with the rest of it”. In my head I went back and forth between the worst scenario, and the best possible. Doing that will make a person crazy very quickly, trust me. Then, right before I was supposed to meet with a student, I refreshed my gmail account for the 100th time, and an email popped up from her.

She loved my book! She wanted to talk to me on the phone! That same day! 5:00 pm!

The student was due any second, so I had to shut my office door and do a spontaneous, Elaine Benes – esque dance. I couldn’t scream, because there were students in the language lab across from my hall and I didn’t want to scare anyone. But I think I did a silent scream. I think maybe I did several. It really was an indescribable feeling because I had wanted for so long to get such an email and then, there it was. Even though I had daydreamed the moment for years, it turned out I was totally unprepared for how I would feel when the moment became a reality. I also wanted to pick up the phone and call my husband, but right then the student walked in, so I had to compose myself and somehow help him understand how he could revise his rhetorical analysis paper.

There was more agony that afternoon because I also had to sit in on a long meeting that afternoon and talk about TEP reports, when all I could think about was how I just wanted to be home,  my cell phone at the ready, in my cozy home office, waiting for the agent to call. I bolted from the meeting at 4:00 and raced to pick up my daughter from a friend’s house. On the way home we talked about the fantastic news. I told her I was secretly worried that maybe this wouldn’t be The Call — that maybe it would be that other dreaded and inexplicable call that sometimes agents make, the one where they tell you they loved your book and really wanted to tell you that in person, but they just can’t offer representation.

“Oh Mama,” she said to me. “Of course she loved your book.”

I felt better then.

The agent called at 5:00 pm on the dot and we had the best conversation. She was 100% easy to talk with, so approachable on the phone, and she spoke with such affection about the characters. She really understood them — especially the main character, and had such amazingly thoughtful things to say about all of them. She talked me through the edits she envisioned, which really didn’t seem too bad over the phone (what could possibly seem bad, though, during such a phone call?) — just the addition of four scenes totaling no more than about twenty pages. We talked about the publishing industry, we talked about teaching, we talked about about diversity in YA fiction, and it was all so very good. I was truly so impressed and comfortable with her. I felt everything just slipping into place. She told me she really wanted me to say on the spot that I would accept her offer but that she understood if I felt I needed some time to notify the other agents who had partials and fulls.

We agreed that I would let her know by Monday next week. I suppose I could have asked for more time, but I didn’t want more time. I had done quite a bit of research on her, and the way we clicked on the phone just sealed it for me. I did email the other agents that night to let them know (those emails were actually totally fun to send out!), and by noon the next day I had heard from all but one. Three sent me congratulatory, warm emails letting me know they were stepping aside, one was disappointed that she didn’t have more time but she understood (I didn’t push things with her and offer her more time because she didn’t seem as good a fit for the book), and the last one who hasn’t replied — well, I wasn’t going to wait on her when I had such a good thing in the works. That afternoon I called the agent back and it was done! She will send me a written document with the outlined edits on Monday, and then the fun/work begins.

When good things happen they can happen quickly. The same is so true of bad things, too, and a part of me is always aware of that. Life can turn on a dime, can’t it? It is also true that it really does take just one agent. I’m not sure I believed that even two weeks ago, but now I see how it can be completely true. A writer may not have dozens of agents wooing them but, in the end, they really just need the one. The one!

 

Last Sunday evening, just when I was settled on the couch to catch up on an episode of The Killing on Netflix, I foolishly checked my email again and got a rejection from an agent who had my full MS.

He said that while my writing was impressive (impressive!), my book was “too quiet” and then, to emphasize one more time, that the story “just was too slow” to sell (boo!).

Wah!

Too quiet! I had heard that phrase a few times with the two other manuscripts I queried before this one. I don’t know — I like quiet books. I like to get to know the characters slowly, to be pulled into their minds and their lives. I like to feel their transformations — I like their realizations to become mine, but gradually. I do not want to read a book and be hit over the head with anything. I especially don’t want to be told how I should feel, and why. I want to read and then have the realization dawn upon me — all on its own — that I really care about these characters, and even if I don’t always like each and every one of them as people, I want to know what happens to them because they’ve made a mark on me, in some way or the other.

I also completely disagree with the notion that teens can’t or won’t enjoy a “quiet” book. That all they want is action, love/sex, action, more love/sex, action and that everything has to zoom along in the narrative because the average teen’s attention span is so short and it’s time to get to the most amazing, most utterly exciting part ever before they put the book down and get back on Instagram! When I think back to the books I enjoyed, they are the types of books I hope I write. After all, that old and wise advice about writing what you know, and writing what you like, is 100% sound, I think. Maybe, in these days of so many distractions, teens do have trouble staying engaged in books, but I know many real, live, teens who are not that way, so they are obviously still out there, and still reading.

Anyway, that is my rant on quiet books. I will keep on reading them and I will keep on writing them.

 

I love doing guest posts for Superstition Review. This is only my second one, but I really needed the kick in the pants the deadline provided. I’ve had so many different emotions swirling around inside of me since we got back from Greece in July, and I just haven’t had an outlet for them. I think I haven’t been able to sort them out and stand back enough in my head to figure out what to say about everything. So when the email inviting me to write another guest post popped up in my inbox I didn’t hesitate to say “yes”. I’ve found that the best way for me to get some writing done is just to, well, actually do it, and be accountable for it.

I am a very deadline-driven person. When I was pushing to get the rough draft of my novel finished before we left for Greece, I marked specific word count deadlines in my iPad calendar so that I would be accountable for them. I developed this technique back in graduate school, when the end-of-semester found me trying to write 3 or 4 30-page seminar papers almost all at once. I marked the page goals on a paper calendar, and more or less stuck to them.

It’s funny how this strategy didn’t work for my dissertation, but it didn’t. I think if I were to try and finish it now I would, because I have become much more focused now that the kids are older. Back when I was struggling to wrap up the final two chapters of the dissertation I had a very young baby who needed surgery at 6 months of age, and a very needy 3-year old. Somehow, marking deadlines on a calendar really wasn’t in the cards.

Anyway, a long-winded introduction to the guest post. Here it is:

Place

jockey

Many, many years ago, long before my grandparents lived in the last apartment of theirs–the apartment they owned, and were so proud of (downstairs from the apartment where the boat sits, waiting), they lived in a wonderful garden apartment in a quiet suburb. My childhood summers were mainly spent there, up until I reached my late teens. There was a wonderful garden encircling the apartment, with fabulous rose bushes, and scores of stray cats who would curl up around the base of the plants and sleep in the shade. At lunchtime my grandmother would twitch the curtain across the kitchen door window with a loud swish and the cats would appear from nowhere, meowing, mouths flashing light pink, curled tongues, and tiny white teeth. In the mornings, after breakfast, my sister and I would wait eagerly for the clap-slap! clap-slap! sound of our friend from upstairs, and for the sound of her wooden Dr. Scholls clogs on the marble steps. She lived in the apartment upstairs. We would play for hours in the garden, that magical place with a tall jasmine-covered wall and the sour-plum tree. She had a set of plastic dishes which I sorely coveted–the goblets and plates were red and purple and green and when set out together on the marble steps they caught the sun like a pile of jewels.

Around that time I had a recurring dream: in it my sister and I would descend down the cement stairs at the back of the apartment building and a door would magically open for us. Once inside, we would find a magnificent playroom filled with all kinds of treasures. Needless to say, I loved that dream. It stayed with me; I told my family about it, and my sister and I searched in real life for a magical door but never found one.

One summer, when I was 14, I had the dream again. Only in this dream I descended down the steps with my sister, watched her disappear inside, and then discovered that the door was closed to me. I couldn’t get inside, no matter what I did, and I never dreamed of that playroom again. Coincidentally, that same summer, my period started for the first time; I had crossed, symbolically, over that threshold and left girlhood behind.

I am astounded so often by the power of the mind, both the waking mind and the sleeping one. Recently I awoke with the memory of that dream again. I’m not sure if I dreamed of that back stair and the magic door, or if I simply awoke thinking about it, because I spent so much time remembering the cardboard boat from that magical trip the last summer before my grandmother died. That I thought of it, though, seems so symbolic to me, and so captures the feeling I  haven’t been able to shake since my grandmother passed away–the sense that a gigantic door somewhere has slid closed; that the garden, and tranquility of both apartments is lost to me now. That somewhere, behind the door, my grandfather sits painting and there is my grandmother, making jam from the sour plums, and we can scarcely wait to try it.

My husband and I were up late last night discussing Beverly Cleary’s well-known children’s book character Ramona Quimby and her family. I should clarify and say that we were up late last night discussing our family budget and, found ourselves instead dissecting the Quimby’s household budget. We periodically have these late-night discussions; not the optimal time for discussing family finances, but it’s the only time we can have a conversation that’s not interrupted every five seconds by one or both of the kids.

I grew up reading about Ramona’s escapades as a four-year old, then as an awkward and outspoken kindergartener, then as an impatient and misunderstood second-grader. When I grew older and out of Ramona and the Quimby’s and into the likes of Judy Blume, and C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander, I promptly forgot about Cleary and her books until a few months ago when we checked out some books on CD for the kids to listen to. In the latest installment, Ramona and Her Father, the Quimby household does some collective belt-tightening when downsizing costs Mr. Quimby his job and they are forced to make ends meet on Mrs. Quimby’s salary alone and, well, times get tough for them, in honest and bittersweet ways.

As it turned out, my husband and I had both spent a huge chunk of this week listening to Ramona at different times in the car (my husband has the morning “shift” with T. while I teach my classes; then we switch off–at the parking lot where he teaches–and I take the afternoon with the kids) and finding ourselves drawn into the trials and tribulations of what it meant for a family in the 1970s to abruptly find themselves dealing with unemployment, and a tighter-than-usual budget. I remember identifying with Ramona when I was 7 or 8–she was, after all, my contemporary–and feeling at the time like Ramona and I had so much in common we were practically soulmates. Ramona was often misunderstood and had trouble with spelling and I was often misunderstood and had trouble with spelling; Ramona shared a room with her sister and I shared a room with my sister; her parents had one car, and my parents did too! Ramona had straight brown hair and envied the girls in her class with springy curls and I, too, had straight brown hair and I so very much coveted the bouncy blonde curls of Denise, the most popular girl in my second-grade class. I loved Ramona—she spoke to me, and it was so gratifying to discover that there was obviously one adult out there—Beverly Cleary—who truly understood the 7-year old angst I had to deal with on a daily basis.

It was odd and a tad sobering this week to find myself, some thirty years later, listening to Ramona and her Father on CD and identifying instead with Mr. and Mrs. Quimby and not with Ramona, or even her big sister Beezus.  I understood belt-tightening back when I was a child as an irritating inconvenience foisted upon us kids by our parents, who surely were being a little melodramatic at times about the amount of money they had in the bank.  But as a child I didn’t feel the stress and anxiety of keeping a tight family budget in the ways which I’m sure weighed on my parents, just as the family finances weigh on us as we try and juggle the growing demands and needs of our kids.

Somewhere along the way I guess I really did grow up and out of Ramona and, while I’m no Mrs. Quimby, I guess it turns out I have more in common with her now than I once thought I did.

Dinner preparation is chaos, usually. Five p.m. is universally recognized by parents to be some type of witching hour, during which kids become possessed by some tiny but fierce inner demons (I imagine them looking like the Mucinex creature), and melt down, whine, cling to legs, and demand unreasonable things; pots boil over, the oven is always too hot, the dog barks at nothing and altogether too many tasks are being crammed into too short a period of time. This has improved somewhat since the kids have gotten older, and since my daughter has grown into liking some of the things my son likes. They don’t watch much television at all during the week, but at 5:00 pm Monday-Thursday they munch down apple slices on the couch in the family room and watch Maya & Miguel together, the inner demons temporarily quelled by the colorful characters on the screen, and the mechanical crunching of apples.

Music also has a calming effect in our house as well. If I am really quick, and dinner isn’t ready yet–which it so often isn’t–I can soften the transition from Maya & Miguel to complete, unleashed lunacy, by quickly turning on the radio to our local classical station, or by popping in a favorite CD. This works particularly well with my son, who I can safely say has loved music from the day he was born. Songs were the only way to get him to sleep for any length of time resembling a nap, and to keep him asleep. When he was a baby we had to set the boom box on “repeat” so the CD would play continuously, and I still remember lying exhausted and spread-eagled across our bed in our tiny apartment while Enya or John Lennon played in an endless loop. If the music stopped, L. would inevitably awaken and we’d hear Eh-eh-eh-eh? coming from the baby monitor and go in to find him awake and confused, his little baby head bobbing up and down in the crib.

Why did the song stop? He seemed to be asking us. What happened to the music?

Songs used to make him want to get up and dance, his whole body moving to the music, his arms stretching up as if he’s trying to grab the notes from the air and make them his own. When he was a toddler and I would catch him singing and dancing to something I would ask him, teasingly, Do you have a song in your heart? and he would answer, Yes, Mama! My heart has music! Now he no longer dances much to music, but it still has the power to calm and capture him. He might stop what he’s doing when a favorite song comes on, and remain entirely oblivious to the chaos I often struggle to block out. I can almost see the world spinning around him and he is at the center, his head bent so slightly towards the speakers, his eyes staring in concentration and his lips moving a little now and again to the words of the song.

T. has become the dancer now, twirling her hands in the air and kicking her feet up in a comical way she struts around the room in time to the music. People who visit us often comment that we have music on all the time at our house, sometimes different songs playing in different rooms. I can’t imagine it any other way; it’s a thread that pulls me back through time, back to T.’s infancy and long nights spent listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while rocking in the darkened living room, back to the small graduate-school days apartment we loved so much and to Enya and Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, back to that crib my husband so carefully put together, the crib where L. slept when he was so tiny still and music filled our apartment, working its way into his heart, where it still plays so beautifully for all of us.