Monday, March 31, 2008
Suitcases? Check, check.
Family? Check, check, and--miraculously home early--check.
Brain capable of forming a complete sentence? I think it left without me. Twenty-one weeks of anticipation had taken its toll.
We were headed for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Bologna--or at least I was. Kirk and the girls were on a quest to find Italy's best gelato. A small part of me wanted to play hooky and join them; the rest of me knew better--I was about to have an incredible learning experience not to be missed.
Saturday morning found me traveling south on the 28 bus praying I was, indeed, headed for the Bologna fair grounds in the far north-east corner of the city. The conference schedule was packed with lectures and workshops running from 8:30AM until well into the evening. And then there was Sunday morning's manuscript review with a mystery faculty member and the agents' First Pages/First Impressions session that afternoon. Gulp! My knees were bouncing under my backpack and my breakfast cappuccino wasn't to blame. A few stops later, a pair of English-speakers boarded, both writers, also headed for to the conference. If I was about to get lost, at least I was in good company--one of them was among the faculty.
Thankfully, we all made it to and across the labyrinthine fair grounds in time to hear illustrator-and-sometimes-author Paul Zelinsky's kick off session on the making of a picture book. The time and effort involved in the creation of something that will undoubtedly be torn, coloured or drooled on is staggering. I had wrongly assumed that, with the advent of computers, the work of making picture books had been greatly reduced. Making a picture book is, indeed, a labour of love and it pains me to admit that the writing is the easy part.
The second speaker was journalist, children's writer, and website designer, Candy Gourlay. She spoke about the inextricable role of the internet in the lives of our target audience. "The internet is a requirement for writers," she says, "because our audience takes it for granted." She highly advocates blogging to give readers a chance to interact and to feel as though they are contributing to the creative process. She does warn, however, that one shouldn't put the cart before the horse. "Write the book before the blog," she said.
Gotcha, Candy! Now, what was I saying?
Jana Novonty Hunter, a picture book writer and editor, closed off the morning by talking about the relationship between image and text in picture books. She presented innumerable classic tales to illustrate her points, reading excerpts and discussing the subtle skill behind the magic of their success. As far as I'm concerned, all any half-decent picture book needs is for Ms. Hunter to read it aloud. What a voice! She can read me to sleep anytime.
Young-adult novelist, Susan Fletcher, launched the afternoon with her workshop on writing fantasy and historical fiction. I adore reading historical fiction but the thought of writing something so labour-intensive is daunting. Where to begin? Susan's exercises confirmed my suspicion that the writing is within my reach. Now, if I can just get over my aversion to research... That may take a while. The afternoon closed with discussion regarding the resurgence of the graphic novel and comic books. When we finally left the fair grounds it was just past 7pm and was already dark.
I made sure to set my watch ahead on the way back to the hotel. I wasn't going to risk missing my manuscript review on account of Daylight Savings Time. I set my alarm, too, slightly earlier than I had risen that morning as the buses ran less frequently on Sundays. True to form, I woke up every hour on the hour all night. Stress management is not my forte.
I was showered, dressed, and out the door by 7AM, at the coffee shop by 7:05 and pacing at the bus stop five minutes later. The posted schedule promised the bus would arrive at 7:25, but I wasn't taking any chances. As luck would have it, the bus was on time, even by Swiss standards. I smiled at the driver as he approached, then broke eye contact to take out my ticket. As I quickly pawed through my wallet, the bus, which had been slowing down, sped up again and began to pull away.
"No! No! No!"
I sprinted after it, gaining enough ground to pound on the back door with my fist. Then, suddenly, the ground went out from under me and I was sprawled in the gutter. The sidewalk had ended. Oh, joy. The upside? The bus had stopped. I hobbled on board and took the first available seat. A little old lady across from me said something in Italian that sounded like, "That must have hurt." I smiled and nodded, showing her my black and bleeding palm. She frowned and shook her head at the driver, mumbling something that sounded like, "Putz."
I couldn't agree more.
My mystery faculty member was waiting for me when I arrived: Kathleen Duey, 2007 National Book Award nominee for children's literature. I was nervous, bleeding, bruised, and my ankle was beginning to swell. As she fished my manuscript out from her bag, I smothered a wince with what I hoped was a receptive smile. Here goes...
Her primary concern was formatting. I had not indented my paragraphs, instead leaving double returns between them. Apparently a mistake like this screams, 'numskull'--my words, not hers. She assured me, however, that the writing was very strong, as was my synopsis. Did I have any other questions?
I was stunned. I know I asked her something, quite a few things, in fact, but for the life of me I can't remember what. It was good! It was strong! Even the !@#$ synopsis! Yippee! My independent review was swiftly followed by Ms. Duey's large group session entitled, The Wordsmith's Secrets. It's a good thing I took copious notes as I'm a little sketchy on it, as well.
One hurdle was over. Only one to go. First Pages, First Impressions would begin after lunch.
Months ago, all participants were invited to submit the first page of a current work-in-progress. The page would then be read aloud and a panel of six agents would give their first impression, the key question being, 'Would they want to read on?' It was unlikely that all the pages submitted would be reviewed, but they would cover as many as possible in the time alloted.
One by one, the pages were read. Few met general approval; most garnered a mixed response. About half way through they came to Gone. I held my breath as the first agent reached for her mike.
"See, this one is short--only three lines, but it's great. I would definitely want to read more."
The agent beside her took the mike from her hand. "And when she was done, I'd want it." The rest of the panelists nodded in agreement. Gone had made a good first impression across the board--one of only a few!
The day rounded out with the second half of Susan Fletcher's workshop, after which I headed to the bus stop where Kirk and the girls were waiting.
So, what does all this great feedback mean? Is publication around the corner?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The only person who has read the whole manuscript is Debi, my conference informal critiquing partner and, as she would agree, work remains to be done. Let's just say I'm highly motivated to persevere.
For now, that's more than enough.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Check list for the SCBWI Conference in Bologna:
- Name Tag
- Copies of published work (5)
- Favourite pens (2)
- Favourite notebook
- Copy of all works in progress (3)
- Business Cards (24)
- Critiquing partner's novel.
- Personal copy of all submitted materials.
- Expository material for Sunday workshop.
- Site map, schedule, and faculty bios.
While I've participated in almost two dozen writing workshops over the last three-and-a-half years, not one has focused on writing for children. I'm particularly nervous about my manuscript review by one of the faculty members on Sunday morning. I've imagined both the best and worst case scenarios: in the former, I'm told my novel is distinctly salable and am invited to submit the complete manuscript for consideration; in the latter, I'm told to save trees and stick to blogging. Regardless, expect a full account of this little life drama when I get back. Until then--
Monday, March 24, 2008
Birds of a Feather
Weeks passed and still Dorothea did not let Clarissa eat until she and the others had nearly pecked the yard clean. While a few of the hens were kind to Clarissa in secret, not one spoke out in Clarissa’s defense when Dorothea was around. Clarissa had never felt so alone…or so hungry.
Late one night, Clarissa sat awake on her roost listening to the muffled coos of the slumbering flock. It was impossible to sleep with a belly so painfully empty. Carefully she crept out of the henhouse. Outside the sky was streaked with dark clouds which hid all but a sliver of moon. The cool night air wove its way through her thinning coat of feathers. Shivering, she began her search for food.
Just as she found her first seed, she heard a sound.
“Who’s there?” she whispered, the seed slipping free of her quivering beak.
“Who wants to know?”
Clarissa squinted past the wire fence and into the rooster pen. Byron, the farm’s only rooster stood on the ramp leading into his house. His eyes were fixed on the fields which stretched beyond the yard. Byron was old. Clarissa had heard that he had a bad temper, so bad that he was penned by himself.
“It’s just me—Clarissa,” she whispered.
“Get back in the coop,” Byron ordered, “Coyotes were howling in the fields last night.” His beady black eyes then returned to their watch, scanning the field for intruders.
“I will…after I eat,” said Clarissa, stooping to pick up the fallen seed.
Byron looked back to Clarissa. “You should eat at feeding time like everyone else.”
Clarissa swallowed hard, forcing the seed past the sadness that swelled in her throat. Finally, she managed a whisper. “Dorothea won’t let me.”
Byron’s chest began to swell. Clarissa watched wide-eyed. He’s going to crow! she thought. But as fast as the old bird had puffed up, he shrunk down again, whispering, “You’ve got to stand up to that obnoxious old hen!”
“I can barely stand, Byron,” said Clarissa, her voice louder than she had expected. “Please, just leave me alone and let me eat.” Clarissa then turned away and began again to search for food.
Byron turned, too. At first it seemed as if he was heading back into his house. But at the last moment, he jumped to the ground. Without a word he began to scratch at the dry earth beneath his feet. Leftover feed from the rooster pen flew through the wire fence that the two pens shared. The grains scattered at Clarissa’s feet.
“Thank you,” she said, then started to eat.Byron continued to scratch until Clarissa had eaten her fill. The two then returned to their houses. They fell asleep to the sound of coyotes howling in the fields.
Andermatt, in the Swiss German part of Switzerland, is 280 kilometers from Geneva. It should have taken three and a half hours to get there by car. It took us seven.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Thursday, March 20, 2008
"When I was a little boy, I used buy lots of candy with my allowance. When my mom would ask if I had brushed my teeth, I would say I did, but I really hadn't."
"You told a lie?" Mighty Mouse asked, wide-eyed. Emma the Brave, considerably less awestruck by this misdemeanor, rolled on to her side and yawned.
"Yes, I told a lie. But you know what? The joke was on me, because when I went to the dentist, he found lots of cavities."
The story concluded with the Captain's yet-to-be-surpassed imitation of a dentist's drill. The moral: brush your teeth or the dentist will get you, that is, if your mother doesn't get you first. It might not be the best bedtime send-off, but his intentions were good.
The next morning Emma was atypically quiet over her bowl of Cheerios. She'd just about finished when out popped the question: "What's an allowance?"
And that is how the proverbial cat got out of the bag--not a bad cat, not even an ugly one, but one with claws, nonetheless.
I firmly believe it is within the parental domain to teach children money management. My parents--both accountants in their own rights--believed so, too, and trained me from an early age to be cash wise and debt wary. I fully intended to implement an allowance at some point, it was just a question of when. With the topic purring sedately at my feet, there was no time like the present.
A few nights later, it was decided. Emma the Brave would receive one franc per week and Madelaine, 50 centimes. We debated as to whether to give Mighty Mouse anything at all--she is only five. But practicality won out: 2 years x 52 weeks x approximately 12 purchases by older sibling = more opportunities to cry and whine than we parents were prepared to endure. Emma hasn't yet clued into the fact that she's missed out on two years potential income. When she does, I'm sure we'll hear about it. Until then, we'll enjoy relative bliss for the mere weekly price of a lolly.
So, for five weeks the girls saved their centimes in new ceramic cat banks bought especially for the occasion. For five weeks, I wrote down their deposits in their 'bank book.' For five weeks, Emma never once forgot to ask for her balance. Then, this past Monday, we needed eggs. We weren't in the store five seconds before they asked, "Can we buy a toy?"
It was a moment I didn't know I'd been waiting for. "No, I'm not going to buy a toy. But you can."
It took almost ten full minutes in the minuscule toy aisle of the Migro for them to decide. They studied price tags like they'd never done before. The decimal point threw them for a minute, but they quickly overcame.
"Look at this one."
"Cool. What about this one?"
"Nah, too expensive."
Were those angels singing?
With their planned purchases in hand, they practically floated to the check out. Emma the Brave had settled on a black Mustang GT and Mighty Mouse, in a clear act of older sibling hero worship, chose a white motorcycle with First Aid emblazoned in red on the side. At home, they paid me from their banks and we balanced the books.
All in all, it was a success...until next month or a trip to the dentist, which ever comes first.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Prior to Cujo I had never thought myself to be a particularly strong reader. Oh, I'd read my share of books, but all in small doses, rarely able to finish a chapter without a healthy blank stare or a trip to the refrigerator. In Cujo I'd finally found a story--or storyteller--that over-road my habitually short attention span. I went on to read Carrie, Firestarter, Dead Zone, The Shining, and, my all time favourite, The Green Mile. So when his memoir, On Writing, was making the rounds through the Birkenstocks, I snapped it up. Whether you appreciate his subject matter is immaterial--the man can write.
On Writing begins and ends as a memoir. He writes of his childhood, contributing to his brother's newspaper, Dave's Rag, and his first rejections in his early teens. By the age of 14 he had to change the nail that supported his rejection slips to a spike, and then "went on writing." He admits he spent a lot of time feeling ashamed about what he wrote. Thanks to his mother and, later, his wife, he kept at it anyway. He writes of his successes and failures with a candor any reader could appreciate. I won't spoil it for you by saying any more.
The middle section he refers to as a Toolbox--his advice on how to write better. He admits that this section was the most difficult to put down on paper. It's not easy to write explicitly what comes intuitively. But he manages it well, retaining much of the conversational tone of the first section, which he termed his C.V.. After all, if I'd wanted Strunk and White's, The Elements of Style, I would have picked that up instead. I liked that he admits to flailing a bit during a first draft and that he includes a before and after example of his own revision process. Considering his own lingering doubts as to whether writing can be taught at all, he did good job of it.
The book concludes with his 1999 encounter with a light blue Dodge van, his slow and painful recovery, and his message to be brave--to write.
Thanks, Mr. King. I think I will.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Saturday, March 15, 2008
When we finally left Mr. Bruno’s office, school had been over for more than half an hour and it was beginning to get dark. Sleet was falling, making the pavement flicker in the passing headlights. The cold air felt good against my cheeks and ears that were still burning from the lecture they’d had to endure. Our punishment: recess in the library until after Christmas plus a one-page essay on respecting the property of others. When I thought about it, that wasn’t so bad. It was getting too cold to be standing around outside anyway.
Mom stopped half-way down the school’s front steps to fish something out of her bag. A second later, out came the old red and black ladybug umbrella. Mom popped it open, then swung it over her head. Its stiff black antennae bobbed in the breeze from a passing car. “There’s room for two,” she said.
I pulled my toque down over my ears. “That’s all right. I’m good.” Once upon a time, I used to beg to use that umbrella. Now I wished she would forget it on a bus somewhere—and soon.
Mom just looked at me, her lips so pressed together they almost disappeared. A bus passed, its wheels hissing through the puddles. “Suit yourself.”
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and followed behind, dragging my feet through the slushy glaze of sleet. A block and a half later we came to our duplex.
Opera and the smell of fried garlic drifted down the spiral staircase that connected our front porch to Mrs. Loretti’s upstairs. She was our landlady—old like Grandma Louise, only nicer. Mom opened up her handbag and rummaged through it for her keys. Across the street, the lights inside St. Mary’s Church went on. It was like God was opening His eyes.
“It wasn’t totally my fault, you know. If Joey hadn’t—”
“Stop.” Mom stood up. She’d found her keys and was pointing the house one at me.
“I said stop.” Her words were perfectly formed like bricks. “You are eleven years old. Your behaviour is your responsibility.” Mom turned away and shoved the key into the lock.
Too mad to say anything else, I went straight to my room and closed the door behind me a lot harder than I’d meant to. I listened for a second, expecting Mom to say something or for Mrs. Loretti to bang on the ceiling with her cane. Instead I heard a raging soprano and the rush of water as Mom filled the kettle for tea.
Good. I let my backpack fall to the floor with a thud and unlocked the top drawer of my desk. From inside, I took out my diary and pen then flopped onto my bed, kicking the tangle of sheets and blankets on to the floor.
It’s sooo not fair. Mom never wants to hear the whole story. I’m either right or wrong. Nothing in between. And now Katie might be in high school before she’s allowed to talk on the phone again. I HATE JOEY SINGH! This is all HIS FAULT!!!
I could have filled my diary with reasons for hating Joey, beginning with how he used to mix the paints in kindergarten, but there was homework to do. I put my diary back in my drawer and hauled out my math book. The Mr. Bruno’s essay could wait.
An hour later, the front door closed with a bang. “I’m home,” called Dad. His voice was smiling.
Not for long.
A minute later there was a knock on my door. Dad poked his head in. “Anybody home?”
I looked up from my work and forced a smile. “Hey.”
“Doing homework already?” Dad walked over and put a hand on my forehead. It smelled like sawdust. “You feeling alright, Mimi?”
“Da-aad,” I said, ducking away. I hated that nickname. “Mrs. Bee gave us a ton of math for tomorrow. It’s fractions. I hate them.” I didn’t mention that Katie and I had way more to do than everyone else because of you-know-who.
Dad leaned over my shoulder to look at my work. “I’ll give you a hand after supper if you want.”
“Isn’t there a game?” There was a good chance I could be spared one of Dad’s boring tutorials by Hockey Night in
Dad thought for a second as he unbuttoned his plaid work shirt. “Nope. There’s plenty of time. The Flames don’t play until ten.”
Rats! “Alright. Thanks.”
Dad gave me a kiss on the top of the head and left, closing the door after him. His footsteps faded toward the kitchen. Listening hard, I bit down on the end of my pencil. All I heard was mumbling until Mom began to lose it.
“Dan, it’s not harmless. It’s escalating. The principal’s right. There needs to be consequences. He said next time he’ll suspend them. Then what?”
“What are you suggesting?” said Dad, his voice rising, too, “that we lock her in her room? Between our jobs and now you with school—”
“You said you’d be more available.” Mom’s voice was getting high and tight.
“And I am.”
“This is the third time they haven’t been able to reach you.”
“Can I help it if my battery dies?”
A chair scraped across floor like it was being pushed away from the table. In the quiet that followed I realized that I’d bit the eraser off the tip of my pencil. I spat the little pink nub into my hand and dropped it in the garbage beside my desk.
My parents’ voices dropped to a murmur again. Not wanting to miss any talk about ‘consequences,’ I stood up and put my ear to the door.
“What if she goes to the church office after school?” Mom was saying, “Mrs. Thomas won’t mind and then no one has to leave work early.”
The church office! Forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to eavesdrop, I opened my door and burst into the kitchen.
“But I can’t go there after school. Katie and I are supposed to research ancient
“We have internet here.” Mom pointed to her ancient laptop sitting at one end of the kitchen table.
“But she has high-speed.”
Mom pushed a long wisp of bang out of her eyes. “It won’t kill you to use dial-up, Michelle.”
“Enough.” Dad was using his deep, this-discussion-is-over voice. “You’ll come to the church after school. You can do your homework there.”
“For how long?”
“Two weeks.” The two of them said this together like they’d rehearsed.
“Two weeks! What about piano?” There had to be at least one upside to this grounding. No piano for two weeks meant no Christmas pageant piece to learn.
Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t be silly, Michelle. Of course, you’ll go to piano.”
Of course. What was I thinking? My piano teacher, Jacinta Singh, was Mom’s best friend—oh, and Joey’s mother.
Mom turned around and yanked open the pantry door. The handle came off in her hand. She let out a sound like a bicycle pump as she tossed it to Dad. “Think you can fix this, Mr. Carpenter?”
Dad caught it just as Mom walked out of the kitchen. A second later their bedroom door closed with a bang. Dad gave me a weak half smile.
At least I wasn’t the only one in trouble. Dad said he would fix that three weeks ago.
Friday, March 14, 2008
12 March - I think I can! I think I can!
11 March - It's time to stop counting.
10 March - 17,277 Words
6 March - 17,235
5 March - 15, 415
4 March - 14,717
3 March -13, 214
25 Feb - 12, 514
22 Feb - 12,577
21 Feb - 12, 251
20 Feb - 12,000
18 Feb - 11, 530
11 Feb - 11,207
8 Feb - 10, 891
7 Feb - 10, 701
5 Feb - 10,123
4 Feb - 9765
25 Jan - 3 Feb Ski Week
25 Jan - synopsis and Ch 1 to Bologna!
15 -24 Jan - synopsis and sick kids
15 Jan- 9235 Words + synopsis
14 Jan - first draft synopsis
10 Jan - 8764
8 Jan - 8156
7 Jan - 7845
21 Dec - 6 January - Christmas Break
20 Dec - 7075
19 Dec - 6585
18 Dec - 6314
17 Dec - 5699
13 Dec - 5139
11 Dec - 4730
10 Dec - 4422
7 Dec - 4228
5 Dec - Draft 4 begins - 3567 Words
4 Dec - 0
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Monday, March 10, 2008
- The end is near.
- There's light at the end of the tunnel.
- Time is of the essence.
- Friday I will call it quits,
- pull the plug,
- ring down the curtain,
- and wrap it up,
- this labour of love.
- Oh, and dare I forget, "This, too, shall pass."
(If I can keep the novel's cliché count lower than this it will be a miracle!)
"Not good. My tummy hurt the whole time."
"That's too bad." Mighty Mouse and I are on our way home for lunch. It's just the two of us as Emma's been invited to a friend's.
"Alan lire-d me a livre today. Elisabeth, too."
It's a good thing I speak French or I'd spend a lot of time not knowing what the hell she's saying. "He read you a book? What was it about?"
"I don't remember." i.e. Feed me then we'll talk.
We get home and Mouse takes off her boots, lowering both zippers without help. She looks up to see if I'm watching and gives me a weak smile. "I'm five," she says.
I make us lunch--ham sandwiches, olives, red peppers, and strawberries. Mouse slumps in a chair to wait, her thumb in her mouth. After a few bites of sandwich, she begins to perk up. Half-way through her peppers she asks if we can play at the computer after lunch. I say yes. She cleans her plate.
Forty-five minutes later, Mouse is all smiles. She puts on her boots, again without help. She lets me zip up her coat, but checks to see if I did it right. I remind her to bring her backpack. She says she won't need it. She brings her baby doll and diaper bag instead. "For recré." Of course--one must always be properly equipped for recess.
We walk back to school and Mouse leads the way. On the front steps she gives me a kiss on the cheek.
"Bye," I say.
But she's already gone.
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Place a few drainage beads at the bottom of each container.
Moisten soil and break up any lumps. A fork works reasonably well, but the girls liked using their fingers.
Carefully unearth seedlings then bury well, covering all of the root and a portion of the stem.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Wednesdays are swim days. This particular one was cold and blustery--not exactly ideal conditions to plunge oneself into a pool of only slightly tepid water, indoors or not. But a promise is a promise. Not only was Christine, my training buddy, expecting me, but it was also the first Wednesday of the month--test day.
Joe Friel, author of The Triathlete's Training Bible, describes a broken kilometer as follows:
After a standard warm-up, swim 10 x 100 meters at maximal effort with 10-second recovery intervals. Time the entire set, including recovery intervals.I subject myself to this routine once a month. Some months go better than others. Lots have gone better than today. With so much of my time committed to other activities, training has definitely taken a hit. Something had to. There is only so much a girl can do.
The downside of being such a compulsive measurer is that things don't always improve. This month the broken kilometer took a little longer than usual. Okay... a lot longer.
What do I say to that?
Draft 4 is almost done and, slow swimmer or not, the kids at the school are expecting me. I couldn't be happier.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Okay, here's the deal: it was a busy week.
In case you haven't been following , Mighty Mouse celebrated her fifth birthday last Tuesday. The party was Wednesday afternoon, the day Swiss kids have no school. It was nothing outrageous. There was no clown, no juggler, no magician, and no multi-storey bouncy castle. It was just the birthday girl, her sister, and six of her closest friends eating copious amounts of pizza, chips, and cupcakes along with a few carrot sticks, tomatoes, and grapes thrown in for good measure. The kids made their own party favours, painting terracotta pots which we later filled with the live primrose of their choice. It was a raging success...exhausting, too. Add to that two full days at the school, house guests, a dinner party, and general fatigue and this writer cried Uncle!
Did I write at all last week? Um, sort of. I scrapped an entire scene and rewrote it. The new one is slightly shorter than the first, hence the temporary drop in word count. On the upside, at least this new one makes sense. I admit the setback contributed to my feelings of fatigue. I don't much like going backward, no matter how justified it is. Truth be told, I'm ready for this draft to be over. I'm gaining unwelcome perspective having worked on it this long. If you've ever stared at yourself in the mirror too closely then you know what I mean. This puppy needs to be stuffed in a drawer somewhere and soon.
So now it's crunch time. March 15th, the day I must send a copy to my critiquing partner, is uncomfortably close. It's a good thing my guests brought me some Belgian chocolates. I'm going to need them.