It’s That Time Again….

My wine key broke the other night–good thing I own a tool box. It doesn’t exactly relate to my post, except that innovative problem solving is always a must when traveling with bots. And wine, afterward.

…time to get on an airplane with bots.

Yesterday I attended an all-day conference an hour away put on by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Tomorrow at 3:55 a.m., the bots and I leave for the airport to fly to Idaho. In between, we have to run a thousand errands and pack three small carry-ons and one medium suitcase to bring on Allegiant Air, whose low fares (the airline is affiliated with casinos) are less ridiculous only than the hoops they make you and your baggage jump through to get onboard. Fares do not include a seat or any luggage beyond a single “personal item” no bigger than 7″x15″x16″. I am betting on the fact that since the occupants of two seats have dimensions of approximately 40″ x 10″ x 7″, the staff will not charge for two very large stuffed bears.

Once I selected my flights online (a choice of flying either Monday or Friday), then I was sent to a seating chart, where each seat was assigned a different price. Not an extra price if I wanted a choice berth, just a price for sitting down. And they don’t allow you to stand up the whole time, although the bots would probably prefer that option.

My question: Can they factor in where the guy with the body-odor problem who jiggles his knee like he’s got a potty problem, chews gum with his mouth open, and sniffles every thirty seconds is seated? Shouldn’t you get a rebate for occupying the seat next to him? Fortunately, my seat companions are not the devils that I don’t know, but the devils that I do. It’s a nonstop flight, and we’ll be at Nanny and Poppy’s by noon, so I am trying to focus on that.

More on the very informative conference once we are on our way. Wish us luck.

The Revising Life

Mbot, doing his own shopping at The Phoenix Children’s Museum. Fortunately, he won’t be out on his own for many, many formative years.

Over the weekend, I read an article by author Matthew Salesses about revising, and how to know when a piece is done. In “Take the Horn Out of Your Mouth,” Salesses recommends that young writers submit to their best chances first (read: those with the lowest standards)–because once its out the door, they will keep revising and–quelle surprise (not his words)–it will get better.

He’s right. At least in my case.

A few days after I read the article, I faced a deadline for a local SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference registration. I filled out the forms, and then the manuscript evaluation forms, wrote the requisite checks, and confidently pulled “Magnolia Squeakyface and the Gloppy Bloppo” up on my screen to print two copies of the 780-word manuscript to include. I had not planned to revise it. It had been finished six weeks before.

I’d already sent it to eight carefully chosen agents, behind a carefully crafted query letter. I’d already gone through a months-long writing process: write, revise. Feel good. Let sit. Read aloud. Feel bad. Revise. Revise. Feel good. Let sit. Read aloud. Feel bad. Revise. Repeat. Etc., etc.

But rereading over the weekend, after a six-week roosting period and four polite rejections (I love how quickly agents respond these days), I found myself asking a few questions about my characters’ knowledge and motives. 1. How does the dad know what a gloppy bloppo is? 2. Why does Magnolia’s brother, Newton, call his baby sister “Squeakyface?” 3. And why does he play with her at the end, instead of try to kill her?

It turns out, the answer to all three questions can be answered in one question about my own motives: it was convenient.

Don’t get me wrong: the story worked. I’d already run the manuscript not only by the bots, but by several writers/mothers/friends, and it had gotten thumbs-up all ’round. But it wasn’t perfect. There were these pesky small issues that kept it from being 100% believable, 100% satisfying. And so I attacked each issue one at a time, eliminating anything that was present mostly because it was convenient.

The process was like–as I’ve found fiction writing always is like for me–putting together a puzzle, but a puzzle in which I was simultaneously creating the pieces and fitting them together, consulting the picture on the top of the box, an image I could not quite see clearly even when squinting.

By the time I printed it out in the coffee shop on the day of the deadline, it had slimmed down by fifty words. It had lost the word “Squeakyface.” It had gained another fun-to-say nonsense word. The dad didn’t, in fact, know what a gloppy bloppo was, and Newton had more incentive to play with his baby sister instead of kill her. Assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and rhythm had risen–and I have found, in many rereadings of many picture book classics–that these characteristics contribute to the magnetic force of a story–the invisible, often unpin-downable reason a set of seven hundred words isn’t just entertaining, but unforgettable.

I sent it out the door on Monday, feeling that if it wasn’t perfect, it was at least one degree of magnitude better than it had been three days before.

Incidentally, the same day, I found myself talking with another mother who was lamenting the fact that she hadn’t had her oldest, now in high school, repeat kindergarten. Not for the scholastic performance factor, but for all the other ones.

“Can I have a do-over?” she asked, laughing, repeating the famous Billy Crystal line from City Slickers.

The answer, of course, is no.

That afternoon, after a long day of revising, actually mailing, and momming, I received an email from a writer friend, which included a ridiculously timely quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

Artists are people who say I can’t fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I can make this square of canvas, or this eight and a half by eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be.

I’m still not sure Magnolia’s exactly what she ought to be. But I’m sure I’ll get a second chance to make her that way. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, if that’s what it takes. That’s one reason I love her and need her. Because I can’t revise my children once I’ve sent them out the door.

Gingerbread Cocktails and the Gloppy Bloppo

This is me, floating on a puff of whipped cream in an oasis of calm. (muchadoaboutfooding.com)

I have stepped out of the space-time continuum for sixty-eight hours and entered a world where the most madness occurs in a poorly-written knitting pattern and the most physical activity has been achieved by a monstrously fluffy kitty who murdered a bunny in the backyard.

No, I have not been institutionalized: my friend of thirty-seven years, Solveig, flew me to Colorado for an early forty-fifth birthday present. We have done little but sit and eat Pad See-Ewe and dark chocolate and she has knitted and plied me with cocktails, and I of course have been writing.

But it hasn’t been much fun. The writing part, I mean. I’m at a crossroads which is another way of saying I’m feeling a little lost. One thing I loved about writing for magazines was that I had a specific assignment. Another was that I had a deadline. Another was that I loved learning about the lives of the people I interviewed. I loved the certainty of publication, and that a large number of people would enjoy and/or learn from what I’d written. The downside was the small paycheck, which made it impossible for me to do full-time and also feed myself.

I am not currently writing for magazines or for anyone other than myself and my blogdience. I am considering a rewrite of the novel but must first weigh the value of the intensive time commitment. I am almost ready to pick up the thesis I completed last spring and turn it into a book–a memoir about fumbling my way through one bad relationship after another (The Gay Exfiance, The Sociopathic Candyman, The Congenial Excon, etc.

In the meantime, I have returned to my first literary love: picture books. In the nineties, I made several attempts, received several  extremely polite rejection letters and requests for more work, and then, due to youth and impatience, I think, quit trying. My early lack of persistence was astonishing.

But this blog reminded me of my love for combining words and images. And, I cleverly became a mother, thus creating my own captive audience–an audience that has no qualms about expressing boredom if a character is dull or a plotline is predictable or my verbal flourishes are self-indulgent. Really, it makes the learning curve MUCH shorter.

And so now I’ve recently finished a manuscript called Squeak and the Gloppy Bloppo. It’s eight hundred words, and with any luck, they are the right ones.

In the past two days, along with polishing off a gingerbread martini, an orange-jalapeno martini, and a pomegranate-elderflower martini, I polished my manuscript and the cover letter. According to Solveig’s handy breathalyzer, I was never legally drunk–when cocktails are stretched out over a twelve-hour period, you can have your drink and your relative sobriety, too. I would have renewed my efforts at researching agents, via the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which provides a wonderful network of writers, illustrators, agents, and editors), except that when I opened my notebook with my list of twenty targets, I found I’d brought Mbot’s field journal, instead. The crayon drawings of angry birds, one-eyed robots, creekbugs, and monsters made me miss the bots terribly and reflect on the dichotomies of passions, careers, quiet time, and motherhood.

It made me think about how one of the easy things about motherhood is that I have an assignment, I have deadlines, I learn every day about interesting people and situations and things, and others appreciate what I’m doing. The downside of course is the low paycheck. Also of course that a bath can be undone in three minutes in the sandbox, and a book is slightly less easy to destroy.

But a children’s book manuscript, by an unknown author, in today’s publishing environment, is not a sure thing. And even if it ever does, it is not helping to pay the Amex bill today. It makes me question whether I’m being realistically hopeful or simply self-indulgent. These are some of the things mothers ask themselves, too, about motherhood. Both writing and motherhood are exercises in persistence, patience, and faith.

But people are enjoying the story. I first told it nearly two months ago, and every few days, Mbot mentions the gloppy bloppo, or Magnolia, the heroine. He asks what I’d do if he turned into the gloppy bloppo, and I pretend to have forgotten the trick to turning a gloppy bloppo back into a little boy.

So we’ll see. Uncertainly is uncomfortable. And there is nothing like being surrounded by peace and calm, kitties and knitting, to give me  a chance to think about the uncertainties. A gingerbread cocktail is comforting, but sadly, it’s only a temporary solution. Learning to live comfortably with uncertainty is the answer.

Working on it.