Starbucks Run (or: The Limits of My Integrity)

At lunchtime today, I realized that I had forgotten to bring anything to eat.  Usually that sends me scrounging in my car for enough quarters to go to the cafeteria and eat whatever the kids are eating, but today, I had a Starbucks gift card burning a hole through my glove compartment, so I raced out to get myself an overpriced coffee and sandwich. 

At the drive-through window, I presented my gift card.  The friendly Starbucks employee gave me my food and drink, then handed back the card and receipt.  When she told me how much cash was left on the card, I realized that she had not charged me for one of my items.

“Wait,” I said.  “I don’t think you charged me for both.”

“Yes I did,” she said.  “The coffee and the panini.”

I looked at the receipt.  “No,” I said, noticing that it said 0.00 next to panini.  I turned the receipt toward the Starbucks window and pointed to the 0.00.  “Look.”

“It’s right there,” said the Starbucks employee, now showing signs of annoyance.  “See?  There’s the coffee – there’s the panini.  It’s a fifteen dollar gift card,” she added, as though trying to help me understand that, mathematically speaking, she was officially correct. 

I guess I could have gone one more round, for the sake of being Truly Honest.  I could have demanded that she look closer.  I could have called for a calculator.

Instead, I drove away, and now I have extra coffee money.

I tried, right?

Third time lucky?

“Luck favors the prepared.”
-Edna Mode, The Incredibles

When this book gets picked up by an agent, and when it gets published, it won’t be because of luck.  It will be as a result of what is now ten years of work.  TEN.  2013 makes it so. 

Still, I’m hoping for some “third time’s the charm” magic today, because I’ve just submitted to my third agent.  This third agent was actually the first person I had interest in, but for various reasons, I submitted elsewhere first.  As of this morning, the third query is away.  So now I get to feel sick until either the agent does or does not reply.

Last night, I described to my husband what this process feels like to me.  I feel like a little boat on a very big sea.  Everything is moving, and I’m bobbing, and my stomach is swooping, and I’m going to barf everywhere.  I do actually feel physically ill about it, a lot of the time, though it’s an emotional-physical feeling.  Psychic nausea.  Blergh.  I imagine what it will be like when the book is actually out there, and I doubt that this feeling will change much.  Maybe it will even get worse.  I was looking at goodreads.com last night, reading reviews of comp titles, and man.  People are brutal.  I don’t think I will ever read a review.  I don’t think I’d survive it well.  I don’t know how the very famous, very public people handle it.  No wonder so many celebrities crack.

Brave New World

2013. Thirteen years since I watched the millennium fireworks explode over Lake Washington.  Thirteen years since I wrote fanfic for the first time (Jane Austen style).  Thirteen years since I met Jennie and we started planning the Sugar Quill. Can it really have been so long?  How old does that make me? How is that possible?
New Year’s Day is also my wedding anniversary. Four years ago, my husband and I threw our happy little wedding, with stacks of our favorite books tied with ribbons for centerpieces, and a cake shaped like a giant, open, gilt-edged fairy-tale book, with the words “All was well” written on the page (and if you can guess why, then you’re our kind of geek).  We have had a marvelous seven and a half years together now, four of them as a married couple, and two of them as parents, and whatever surprises 2013 brings, I’m pretty sure we can handle them as a team.  We make a cracking good team. 
This year, I have a lot of goals, none of which I can entirely control.  So I guess they’re hopes, more than goals.  But they’re not passive hopes; I’ll do everything I can to bring them about.  Can I make sure to get an agent?  Can I make sure to get the first book under contract with a publisher?  No.  But I can work hard and do my part, just as I have been doing, and maybe this year, the work will pay off. 
My biggest hope is that my little boy continues to be bright, healthy,  and happy. I sure wish I had complete control over that one.  At least I can snuggle him up right now.  I think I’ll do that.  
Happy New Year, everyone.

Shiny Toys and Revisions

In this post, I exposed my lack of online cool and my contributing lack of cell phone technology.  Well, guess what, people?  Guess what shiny and beautiful toy I got for Christmas?  That’s right: a cell phone that goes on the INTERNET.  A cell phone that understands my voice, even.  I feel like I’ve joined the future where all the excitement happens. Also, I know I’m way behind the eight-ball, here, but Words with Friends is awesome.  My friend Ruth has been wiping the floor with me, so I don’t know why I’m enjoying it so much, but I am!

In assuming this new technology onto my person, I’m giving up a couple of things.  My comfort for not having a cell phone was a sense of righteousness.  I wasn’t one of those people who walks around glued to a tiny screen.  No!  I was better than that.  And I had no tiny screen to test me.  I was more than happy, let me tell you, to trade in my righteousness for the shiny little screen.  The other delight I’m giving up has to do with my students.  It was always pretty amusing to tell my middle schoolers that I did not have a cell phone.  Watching their twelve and thirteen-year-old expressions as they grappled with the bizarre idea that anyone would choose to live without a vital appendage – priceless.

This week has also seen the beginning of revisions to Book 2 of the Tyme series.  The cultural context of the place where the book begins is so much clearer to me now that it’s almost easy to get underway.  And I’m learning a lot about my process.  Apparently I am a writer who races to finish a draft, screeches to a halt right before writing the big ending moment, asks one million questions of the story, then starts again, almost from scratch, but snagging big chunks from the first draft where they still work.  This may be a pretty common process.  I don’t know.  It works for me, though.  And there’s a domino effect, when this happens.  Changes to one book in the series mean changes to all books in the series.  I do feel pretty nervous when I think about the fact that, eventually, the first book will be published and out the door, and I won’t be able to make changes anymore.  I’m sure that’s a common fear.  Relinquishing control.

Hey, my phone made a noise like a mountain temple!  Awesome, someone wrote to me.  No, it’s just junk e-mail.  Not as awesome.  But my husband is awake now, so I think I’ll pummel him until he plays a word. 

Think Break

I haven’t added to the manuscript in three weeks. I came to a stop a couple of chapters before the end, because I had run across some really big, series-affecting questions that have to be answered before I can write the ending to my satisfaction. I need a think break.

This has happened before. It happened with the first book in the series, and I guess I should be nervous, because that little think break lasted longer than I’m prepared to admit. 
It doesn’t matter this time, though. I’m not nervous about getting started again at all, because the monster in my brain – the one who used to tell me I’d never finish anything I started – seems to be dead. And if it’s not dead, then it’s badly wounded and lacks the strength to hinder me. In fact, I did some writing the day before yesterday, a short story from the point of view of one of my villains. I was thinking through a pivotal moment in this villain’s journey, and suddenly it wasn’t enough to think through it, I had to write it and make sure I really knew how it all went down, word for word. It was fun. It was relaxing. 
And it’s not really surprising that I didn’t get back to writing until the day before yesterday.  It was a stressful December at work, and Wednesday was the first day of my Winter Break.  Hurrah for Winter Break!  Our tree is up, the lights are lit on the house (first time in a house – always an apartment before, so this is my first year with lights on the roof, and I hung them backwards the first time, so that was delightful entertainment for the neighbors, I’m sure), I’m listening to this fabulous album, and we’re taking the little boy to see Santa today.  I’m happy. 
It also helps, and very much, that the editor who likes the first book was back in touch the other day and reaffirmed interest. So that feels good. 
I’m going to sit here now and drink coffee and wrap presents and think.  

Slow Going

O snail,
Climb Mount Fuji
But slowly, slowly!
               -Issa (translated by R.H. Blyth)

The agent who has 50 pages of my manuscript (or who has recycled 50 pages of my manuscript) is not going to be in touch.  The “don’t call us, we’ll call you” window of time has elapsed, as of today, and I am obliged to assume that “the material submitted is not right for our agency at this time.”

The good news is that I’m free to query again, and I’m doing that as soon as I’m done with this post.  The draft has been saved in my e-mail for two weeks.  I’m ready.

O snail.

I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. 
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do? 
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. 
Hugh Fennyman: How? 
Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

                        –Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard

My first love is the theatre.  I wanted to be an actress from the time I knew what it meant to want to be something.  Writing came later; the first art of storytelling I learned was the art of telling stories live, with and in front of other people.  This is probably why I continue to be a collaborative storyteller who works best when other people are working with me.  But that’s not what this post is about.

I’m a middle-school drama teacher.  I’m qualified to teach language arts, but right now, I don’t.  It’s all drama, all the time.  As if middle-school isn’t dramatic enough on its own.   I work at a Title I school, a “focus school” with high poverty and low test scores.  Most of my kids have not enjoyed the kind of childhood that I did, and many of my fellow teachers have their worth determined by state tests.   But not me.  Kids aren’t tested on their knowledge of the arts.  Nobody really cares what happens in my room.  As one parent put it to me this year when I called home to tell her that her daughter was struggling, “Sorry, but your class isn’t important.”

This is insulting.  But it’s also a huge blessing.  I am not beholden to any curriculum.  I can develop my classes the way I see fit, based on the state learning standards.  So I try to make my classroom a place where kids are supportive of each other, where they can take risks, where they can be kids, and where, once we’ve built up a level of trust, real-life drama can be safely explored and productively harnessed.  Sometimes – often, even – that works.  Sometimes it’s not so easy.

Last night, we finished our production of Romeo and Juliet.  I’ve put on lots of plays, with lots of kids, but this group was particularly challenging. There were times I really didn’t see how it could possibly come together. But it did, because under positive pressure, kids do astounding things. They got onstage in front of 700 people yesterday, and they performed Shakespeare.  Twice. 

How does that always happen, in the theatre?  How do things come together? Is it magic?

I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Sick

Having a small child in full-time daycare has reintroduced sickness into my life.  Before my son went off to play in the petri dish with the other little germfarms, I wasn’t sick for years.  YEARS.  Oh, I’d take a sick day now and again, but they were really mental health days.  (Like one time, when my husband and I still lived in Brooklyn, we took a sick day together, because we’d had it with our jobs.  We built a tent in the living room and played video games in it.  Really.)  Before my son was born, I couldn’t tell you the last time I well and truly suffered an illness.

Since he started attending dayare, I’ve been sick every few months.  Knocked-down sick.  Aching, coughing-till-I-retch, moaning pitifully from under the covers, incapable of eating and breathing at the same time sick.  And just as I learned that it really sucks to be sick, I also realized that I don’t have the luxury of being sick anymore, because I have a small child.  Being a sick mom is NOT FUN.  (Mom, I’m so sorry.  I never knew.  I owe you one billion bowls of chicken broth and so much coddling.)

All this to say: I’m sick this week.  Ugh.  Horribly sick.  I even have a fever, which never happens.  I shouldn’t have gone to work the past couple of days, but I had to run rehearsals.  Nobody else can do that for me, so bringing in a sub doesn’t work.  And I couldn’t cancel rehearsals; the performance is next Friday, and I had professional fight choreographers in all week to stage the opening brawl (we’re doing Romeo & Juliet – the kiss-free version, if you can believe it.  But hey, it’s middle school.  The fact that I have them holding hands and touching each other’s faces is enough to send them spiraling into fits of hysteria.)

Feeling sick has muddled my mind.  Maybe that’s why, after crash-banging out almost a hundred pages over the Thanksgiving break, I have come to another screeching halt and haven’t written a word.

It could also be because I’m working on the climax of the book, which is, you know, pretty important, and can be intimidating to write.  Even knowing it’s a draft and that I can change it all, it’s intimidating.  It’s also complicated, because at the end of this book, I’m introducing something that needs to echo back in later books, including the final book, and I’m scared I’m going to screw it up.  Even though the books are outlined and the series is deeply planned, things change when I write.  They just do.  I’m scared to write myself into a corner that I can’t get out of later.

So instead, I’m writing this post, and drinking tea, and sniffling pathetically all over the place, as if that’s going to solve anything.  BOO HOO.

It’s a Draft

“The best writing is rewriting.” -E.B. White

As I launch into the final action sequence of this book, my husband hovers over me a little bit.  He is a math guy.  He likes numbers.  He thinks about how long the first book in the series is, and then he looks at the page count for this second book, and he says things like, “Honey, how long do you think this one will be?  About the same?  Give or take ten pages?  So you’ve written almost seventy percent of a book.”

“It’s a draft,” I reply.

Last night, he was pretty excited about it.  “Honey, you’ve already finished more than eighty percent of a book.”

“It’s a DRAFT.”

“Fine, eighty percent of a draft.”

He thinks I am downplaying my accomplishment.  He wants to buoy me up.  He’s wonderful.

But man, it’s a draft.  A drafty, creaky, ramshackle draft.  There is a world of difference between the draft and the book.  Or at least, there is for me.  I’m not like my friend Lisa, who lingers over every sentence, tooling and retooling it in her mind until it comes out exactly the way she believes it must be.  I am crash-bang-boom, get the pages out, and when, on page 300, I realize that someone I introduced on page 75 has never returned, I think, “Whatever.  I’ll fix it later.”  And I keep going.  I can’t think about it being eighty percent of anything, because it’s still just a platform. 

Rereading this book is going to be a shock, and rewriting it is going to be intense.  I’d better put it aside for a while, when I’m done, so that I don’t undermine my self confidence again.  I might even move on to the third one, and then double back for this one when I’ve had some time to think.

Part of me actually wants to draft the whole series so that I have my head around it, and then rewrite it as a whole beast, instead of in sections.  But that’s probably overly ambitious.  Still, if nobody buys it or agents it anytime soon, then I might have a lot of time ahead of me to do all the drafting I want. 

Two weeks, and I send to the next agent.  Two weeks!  I’m looking forward to that.

Friends with Benefits

One of the greatest things about loving books and writing is that you end up befriending people who share your passion.  These are people who can differentiate between their and there, discreet and discrete (they know that these terms are, ha ha, discrete).  They know why active voice matters, and they understand why adverbs should be used lightly (ha ha again).  And beyond understanding and reveling in the mechanics and beauties of language, they tend to be funny, and absurd, and aware of their humanity.  In my experience, thoughtful readers and writers are often good people.  Kind people, who can empathize with situations that lie outside their own experiences.  Perhaps this is because, as Percy Shelley said, “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”

Last week, I was tired and had to push myself.  This week, I had student conferences at school, and though I wanted to write, I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be.  Not in a writing sense, anyway.  Luckily, my good friend Kathy MacMillan sent me the manuscript of her novel, and I had the awesome experience of being swept away, not just by a good book, but by a good book written by a friend.   It came at the perfect time.  My word-well was running dry.  A good book fills it back up again like a long rain, and I came back to my own manuscript last night, inspired and ready to work.  Thanks, Cap’n Kathy. 

Other friends of mine are writers too.  Melissa Anelli is the most notable, but there’s also the marvelous Minneapolis playwright Ruth Virkus, whom you will hear a lot more about, on this blog, when I decide it’s time to dish the dirt about my writing process.  And though many of my friends have not made writing their profession, they are great readers and writers simply because they love these things.  I count librarians and archivists, teachers and cartographers, nurses and office administrators among my friends, and every one of them is a writer whom I respect.  My friend David Carpman, a lawyer, gave me some of the most sensitive feedback on my writing that I have ever received. 

It’s not an accident that all my friends can do this.  Those of us who love books are drawn together by our heartstrings.  We are, as Anne would say, of the race that knows Joseph, and we seem to be able to spot each other from miles, and even continents, away (thank you, Internet).  I met my husband online, and the first thing I found compelling about him was his ability to construct a sentence and communicate an idea.  I am so fortunate to have someone of his intelligence on my side, giving me the courage to go on even while he fixes the typos I don’t see and asks questions that expose the flaws in my plotlines.  

I’m grateful for my small and beautiful community of friends who have been willing for so many years to read my drafts, and who still tell me that they believe it’s going to happen.  I’m lucky.  But I guess what I’m saying here is that it’s not luck.  We find each other because of this great thing we share, and then we keep on sharing it.
Happy Thanksgiving.
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