Good News

Vacation Scene

First, my plane did not crash. (Make that planes, five of them, and not a single one crashed. What luck!) So I am back at home, alive, perfectly able to edit my draft novel/monstrosity before anyone reads it.

But after two weeks vacation, I really don’t feel like it. We’re having a mild spell in central Canada, the days are getting longer and sunnier, and I’d rather avoid office work until next November.

Thankfully, I have new motivation to keep me tied to a computer: my first novel, Walking Backward, is a finalist in the Canadian Library Association’s 2010 Book of the Year for Children Award

I was sent the news by the awesome marketing folk at Orca Book Publishers (Dayle and Leslie, who are always on top of things I never even heard of). I first thought, hmm, what does this list of the likes of Arthur Slade and Gordon Korman have to do with me?

Then I saw my name. And it was second on the list! (Okay, it’s alphabetical – R. J. Anderson beat me to first place. But still, I’m way ahead of Eva Weisman and Tim Wynne-Jones.)

Seriously, this is a huge honour and I’m thrilled to pieces.

But, having been raised Catholic, guilt follows quickly on the heels of any thrill. So I’m feeling that I should have finished another novel by now. (Truth be told, I’ve finished several. But they’re all younger and sillier and, most notably, unpublished-er than Walking Backward.) What I mean is that I should have another novel lined up for publication by now.

Why? So that when I walk around wearing my new T-shirt that reads, “My first novel is a finalist for the CLA 2010 Book of the Year for Children Award,” and people ask, “When is your next novel coming out?” I can give them an answer.

Energetic visitor

So I have to edit my monstrosity sometime before November. I’d do it right now if I didn’t have to walk the dog.

Make that dogs, two of them. My sweet old dog and I are babysitting a neighbour’s pup. He’s huge and half-wild, with tonnes of energy to burn out there in the fresh air. Honestly, look at this tough guy: if he asked you for another walk, would you say no?  

Maybe I’ll get to the book at sundown. Till then, I’ll bask in my good news.

Writing vs. Editing

On Monday, I finished the first draft of my new novel for the 10+ age group. (No time to blog with that on my plate.) As I was writing the last scenes, I brimmed with excitement, tears, sighs, joy, wonder, etc. The words, “I love it!” kept bubbling out of me, often accompanied by sniffles and smiles. My family just patiently nodded. They are used to my moods. 

I am taking a week away from the book before facing it with my editor’s hat on my head. I peeked at the draft yesterday and, yikes, it’s a mess. There is such a chasm between the drafting phase (intense, replete with flowing tears and pumping heart) and the revising phase (cold, replete with confused frown and tapping fingertips). I need a few more days before I can face that.

I’m going away on vacation. The book will be here when I get back. (Part of me worries, “What if the plane goes down and somebody finds that draft? After I’ve claimed to love it so much? How embarrassing.” No, I simply must live long enough to edit the thing.) I know it will be a disappointing read. So much work lies ahead of me – at least as much as I’ve already done. But I’ll find gems in the draft, I’m sure of that. Bright enough to keep me polishing the whole thing to a shine.

I spent the rest of this week putting the final polish on a chapter book I mentioned in my blog on nursery rhymes. This is inspiring work. The book is completely finished (i.e., to the point where I read it through and don’t want to change a thing) and I absolutely love it. Of course, I loved it when I drafted it six months ago (“This is so original, so captivating!”). But I REALLY did not love it when I first faced the editing process (“This is moronic. What was I thinking?”). It had a tiny kernel of a gem, which I have polished and fussed with and moved around and scraped and buffed so many times that I’ve come back to my original position of loving it, but with a more realistic affection. (“This is good. Someone will enjoy this.”) This gives me hope for the editing process I’m about to face on my longer novel.

I’ve come to think that writing is like love affairs. The drafting is heady and world-changing. You’ve never felt this way before about a piece of writing and you know you’ll never feel this way again. You can’t stop thinking about it. You’re an emotional basketcase. You need it so badly. It’s the best thing that ever happened to you.

Then the honeymoon’s over. You come down from the clouds and take a really good look at that first draft. Was it always this awkward? Where’s the wit and charm that swept you off your feet? It just sits there, too tired to take you dancing. And, boy, it could use a shave.

If you can get over that moment, you must begin to work on the relationship. (If it’s worth it. Some books are just not worth finishing, sad to say. Fun while it lasted. Time to move on.) A good marriage begins with accepting your draft for what it is. Probably not the greatest thing ever written. Certainly not as good as it could be. But maybe something worth keeping, worth appreciating, worth staying together and working on. 

And so you’re on the road to happiness, you and your draft. But it’s a road you have to flatten as you go. This book is going to bug you. You really won’t like it half the time. But keep focused. Stick with it. Think of the children. Start a thankfulness journal. Whatever it takes. Just keep working on it. You’ll fall in love again one day.

It’s hard to put on the editor’s hat but it’s necessary if you want anyone else to fall in love with your book. (That’s where the love affair comparison ends – nobody preps their spouse for the next partner, do they?) You have to cut out all the stupid bits and many of the clever bits, too. You have to justify the presence of every scene, keep a consistent point of view, give each character their own voice, and thirty-seven other tips for effective writing. You have to read it SO MANY TIMES, rethinking, rearranging, revising. Then once you get the framework right, you have to work on the actual lines. All of them. Egads. It’s so much work.

I’ve never been to marriage counselling but if it’s anything like editing, I don’t think I could handle it.

Soon I will become a brutal but sympathetic editor of a sloppy but mildly entertaining first draft. But for the next week, at least, I will remain head over heels in love.

Illustrations and other Surprises

I opened an email last week to find a message from my editor at Kids Can Press with a file attachment showing the revised roughs of my first picture book. What a treat!

Irrelevant Clipart

I can’t include a picture here, of course. You’ll have to wait for the finished book – now scheduled for release in Spring 2011. It will be worth the wait, since it’s being illustrated by the intensely creative, Governor-General’s-Award winning Virginie Egger.  It’s wonderful for a first-time picture book writer like me to be teamed with such a talent!

I used to wish I had the ability to illustrate my own stories. It’s unnerving handing your text to a total stranger. The entire look and feel of the book is in their hands. The vision you had while writing it is about to erased. And if it what comes back is not to your taste, that’s just too bad.

That used to be a scary thought. But not anymore. Now I like not controlling everything. It leaves room for surprises. To see my simple words transformed into something gorgeous is like planting a seed and getting a treeful of presents.

What a rewarding partnership! The experience is much fuller that if I’d done both the writing and illustrating on my own. (And since I can’t put together an outfit, let alone an illustration, it’s a whole lot better looking.)

Last week, my 7-year-old son asked if he could illustrate one of my stories. I said sure. Not everything I write will earn the attentions of a professional illustrator, after all. Most of my stories will probably never find a market. (If the best few do, I’ll be very happy.) But why should the pretty-good-but-not-great stories end up in a filing cabinet forever? Instead they could become family storybooks, weekend hobbies, picturebooks written and illustrated here at home, maybe passed on to grandchildren with scrapbooks and photo-stories. People do that with all sorts of folk art – quilts, pottery, jewelry, photography, paintings, carvings – so why not do it with stories? 

I’m going to dust off my dead files, grab my kid and some crayons, and give it a try. (And those pics I’ll be able to post here.)

Rewards of Research

I’ve been researching nursery rhymes for a silly early reader.

I’ve discovered long-winded versions of many short familiar rhymes. The famous little star twinkles through five verses; children go round the mulberry bush half a dozen times; Jack and Jill go home and get whipped by their mother; the girl with the curl stands on her head and bangs her heels against the window.

I found out that Bobby Shafto has a baby on the way (I bet he’s never coming back). And the three little kittens started to bug me, what with losing and finding and dirtying and washing their mittens again and again. Enough already. I’ll stick to the first verse or two of those rhymes.

I like the full Mary Had a Little Lamb but I dislike the repetitive song . An American version has the lamb’s fleece “as white as cotton.” (“And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb it went a-trottin’.”) 

Jane Cabrera's Old Mother Hubbard

As a child, my favourite rhyme was one of the longest and silliest: Old Mother Hubbard. I loved the weirdness of the dog coming back from the dead, and the illustrations of him dancing and dressing and riding a goat. Many children must have loved it, since it came down through the ages in its entirety while Jack and Jill were left wrapping their heads in paper.

I never tried to learn Old Mother Hubbard by heart. It has always been a rhyme to be read with pictures. Not like Miss Muffett or Wee Willie Winkie or Mary’s little lamb, which were just as easily spoken.

This favourite rhyme was written by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826), who took a stock nursery character and wrote the story in the form we know today (like a very minor Homer). It was published in June 1805 as The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog. It was an instant success, selling over ten thousand copies in a few months. Pirated editions sprang up everywhere, and there has been a new edition of the poem published in some book or other just about every year since. (Check out the original here.)

That’s a pretty good run for an unknown writer. Ms. Martin wrote a sequel in 1806 but, like the long-winded versions of other rhymes, no one knows it anymore because it’s too long and dull. (You can read it here if you want.)

Not Mary's lambs

Less familiar nursery rhymes can be fun to discover, but you have to sift through a lot of junk to find a few gems. Collections of early rhymes hold delights no longer considered fit for children. Like folk tales, nursery rhymes have always had their detractors. The mid-twentieth century saw a movement toward “nursery rhyme reform” which managed to clean up some of the naughtier ditties. (For a list of documented nursery rhyme offences from Geoffrey Handley-Taylor’s 1952 collection, see here.)

Today we read of children being kissed sweetly instead of beaten soundly before bed. I haven’t seen a recent Mother Goose with any of these nasty insults:

  • “Tell-tale, tit! Your tongue shall be split. / And all the dogs in the town shall have a little bit!” (Anti-tattling taken to extremes.)
  • “See! See! What do I see? / A horse’s head where his tail should be!” (Difficult to visualize, but it sounds clever.) 
  • “Piss a bed,/ Piss a bed,/ Barley Butt. / Your bum is so heavy/ You can’t get up.” (Good for children fond of sleeping in.)
No mittens in here

What did I say? Absolute treasures. And very inspiring for my (currently unpublishable) early reader. Have a look at the old rhymes and see what gems you can discover.

Happy New Year.

Stupid Procrastination Attempts

scissorsDid your need to procrastinate ever lead you to a really dumb decision?

In the middle of writing a key scene in my novel this morning, I decided I needed a haircut. Of course this was simply a ploy from some twisted part of me to stay away a while longer from my computer. I really dread writing this scene. 

I lingered in front of the mirror, bemoaning my wrinkly forehead and arched eyebrows (which I plucked twenty years ago in another procrastination effort, and they just never grew back), and I decided I could use some bangs.

These are the moments when I wish I’d posted “Get back to your book” signs all over the house.

Did I call my hairdresser? No – that would have led to an appointment for another day, which would mean I’d have to return to my computer and finish the damned scene. Instead, I reached for a pair of scissors.

Photo with short bangs
Bad idea

I thought I planned it out nicely. I combed out a patch of locks at the front of my head and separated it from the rest. I pulled it snug to keep it in place. I opened the scissors just below the spot I wanted my bangs to hang (i.e., covering the wrinkly forehead and eyebrow arches). But I didn’t account for the poofyness of hair. When you pull it down in front of your face and hold it tight to cut a straight line across, it poofs up much MUCH shorter than expected. And the result is something like this:

“That was a bad idea,” I said aloud the moment I saw what I’d done. I cracked up for a bit – because it is the sort of haircut only created by five-year-olds or desperately procrastinating writers. But I stopped laughing when I remembered that it’s almost Christmas and I’m about to visit friends and family I haven’t seen for ages, and they are all going to take one look at me and wonder how I managed to mangle my bangs so badly without even hiding my eyebrows or wrinkles.

gel works
Gel works

I tried tucking it behind my ears — worse. I tried a pony tail –much worse. I tried a hairband — truly moronic. And of course I snipped at the bangs hoping they might morph into beauty — not.

Finally I hit upon a solution: my husband’s hair gel. Ah, back to normal (with a whole hour wasted!).

Now you can barely tell that I have bangs. True, my forehead looks extremely wrinkled an my eyebrows look perpetually surprised, but at least I do not look like my youngest son cut my hair for free.

better than bangs
Procrastination successful

And hey, I came out of the whole thing with a stocking stuffer to add to my wish list: hair gel. Plus I milked the episode not only for its own waste of time, but for the additional procrastination value of writing about it on this blog.

A procrastination risk well taken, I’d say.

If you’ve ever done moronic things while trying to avoid writing your book, I’d love to hear about them.

Merry Christmas.

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