You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I should probably be wary of taking song lyrics as blog posts — someone might think I had a delusion that this blog were fabulous like Betsy Lerner’s — but what the heck. I wanted to talk about writing books today anyway. Not the act of writing books, no. I mean books about writing, written for writers. (Procrastinating writers like me, who spend long hours poring over them instead of finishing manuscripts. Oops.)

I recommended Betsy’s The Forest for the Trees a few months back — an excellent book which I have since loaned out and, therefore, will never see again. (Which one of you Writer Friends has it? I can’t even remember. Ah, well. Que sera. It’s the Circle of (book) Life, or some such.) For my birthday this week, I received a copy of Jane Yolen‘s (on whom I have a humongous writer-crush) writing book called Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft.

I’m not even halfway through this book, but I can already tell you — I will NOT loan this one out to anyone. I’m going to need this one again and again. So hie thee to a bookstore and get your own darn copy. Why should you spend your money on this little, watermelon-colored book? She doesn’t say anything in it you can’t pick up from other books, from the Internet, or from your writing buddies over a few glasses of wine. There’s not that much new in what she says. But, oh, Writer Friends. HOW she says it.

Sigh.

So, in honor of Jane Yolen, tomorrow is a designated BIC day – Butt In Chair. I’m turning off the phone, leaving the dishes in the sink, avoiding the Internet like the plague, and writing. Nothing else.

Writing all day long.

Now THAT’S taking joy, if you ask me.

The Chickens Are Circling

My life is full of chickens. I have the actual living, clucking kind here on my pretend farm in the Hill Country, the hens who lay their darling little brown eggs, rendering every day of my life an Easter egg hunt in miniature — oh blissful country life! (Dang. Where is that sarcasm font?)  Also, I have the metaphorical kind. The chickens who come home to roost in weeks like this one. (I’m not planning to go into detail here. Suffice it to say that those long weeks and months of ignoring everything except my manuscripts, basic hygiene and housekeeping, and keeping the dogs/fish/kids/hens alive came back to bite me in the backside this week. Ouch.)

And sometimes I’m the chicken. Writer Friends, you know what I’m talking about. Too chicken to take that risk — the one that will make your writing/life stronger and more meaningful. I’ve been clucking around long enough. I think I have to act slightly more chicken-hawkish this week.

Anyway, I thought you might enjoy this for National Poetry Month. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan talks about chickens, cartoons, finding your work in unexpected places, and writing exactly what you like — NOT what the world tells you you should write.

On that note, I’m skipping church tomorrow to stay home and write just that — exactly what I like. I think the Big Guy will understand. I’ll be writing about Him anyway.

News: I had a short story for children accepted by a new online children’s magazine called Bumples. It should appear in mid-September. Hooray! Also, my essay Excellent Stock came out in Sasee magazine, although it is not featured on the website. Darn.

On the continuing education front, I went to the local SCBWI meeting today and heard author Janet Fox talk about character and plot. More on that later in the week. Write well, friends.

The Dreaded Poetry Post

April is, as you are all no doubt aware, National Poetry Month. Many of my Writer Friends and Writer Acquaintances have very bold plans for the month, like writing a poem every day. Seriously. There’s tons of them doing it.

It makes me tired to think about this.

Because I love you (I do, I assure you, love every last one of my handful of readers) and do not wish to alienate you at this early, fragile stage of our e-relationship, I will not follow suit. I will, however, give you a very few nuggets of poetic gold and/or horse manure to ponder. You be the judge.

For today, please enjoy/disdain/mock/scorn/delight in the very first poem I ever had published (in my hometown newspaper, no less!), a copy of which is even now hanging on the wall of my nonagenarian grandmother, confusing anyone who stops long enough to read it. (You’ll see.) I wrote it when I was nine and had fallen hopelessly, haplessly in love with Miss Edith Hamilton and her wicked, wickedly thorough book of mythology. Norse, Greek, Roman gods, all with their similarly gleaming muscles, cruel appetites, and casually incestuous, forked family trees? She exposed them all to my wondering, innocent eyes. Ah, Edith! You ruined me.

Brace yourselves.

Apollo was the god of the sun,

Zeus the Father of All,

Aphrodite, the goddess of love:

Troy, Greece, a broken wall.

A war can kill so many,

but the will of Zeus decides

whch of the ages should live

and which should die.

A giant horse rolled in one day

and it would be his will —

Zeus destroyed near all of Troy,

all Trojan blood was spilled.

Voila, my literary debut, written years before I knew what a Trojan was.

I’ve written a few others since then. Who knows? With enough encouragement and a few dozen margaritas, I might post some of them here this month. If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.

Prank You Very Much

Happy April Fool’s Day!

I love this holiday. I don’t get QUITE as into it as some of my friends (like the one who painted her sons’ fingernails in the night, and – oh, no! – couldn’t find the remover before school this morning), but I do my share.

This morning, I pranked my Zumba class by replacing the warm-up song with the Coconut Tree Cha Cha for Go, Diego, Go! Imagine 30 middle-aged women doing the “Baby Jaguar” Cha Cha over a pile of invisible coconuts… and trying not to let their growing feelings of horror, shame, confusion, and despair show on their faces. It was awesome. (If you don’t know what Zumba is, just know that we usually dance to groups like the Cumbia Kings, Pitbull, and Lady Gaga.)

I also sent a very special manuscript to my agent for her to consider. Hey, it’s not every day you get a rhyming alphabet picture book about roadkill, is it? (A is for Armadillo, scaly and cold…)

Although, from what I’ve heard about the slush pile, it might happen more frequently than I’d like to think.

Agent Suzie had some fun with her own April Fool’s joke — check it out. Just one more reason to love her… gotta love an agent who fights dirty. And you really, really want her to be fighting on YOUR side.

(I’m totally going to do the nail polish one next year, though.)

Winning the Silver

Hi, Writer Friends! Did any of you hear that news piece a few weeks back during the Olympics, about the relative psychological ramifications of winning the silver versus bronze medal? It went something like, yeah, gold is what you want, but if you have to win silver or bronze, you’ll be happier with bronze in the long run. The silver medalist, as it turns out, second-guesses him/herself for the rest of his/her life, while the bronze winner just thinks “Dude! I lucked out!” (Ah! Found it.)

Well, I’m no Olympian, but I think I would be happy enough with second. In fact, I won a second place today in a writing contest. Woo hoo! Also, this prize comes with money, which makes my mercenary heart go pit-a-pat. (Actually, I sent in three pieces, two kid’s short stories, and one essay. I got second place on one story, and Honorable Mentions on the other two. Not too shabby, eh?)

Still, if I had to pick one thing to keep from today, winning the prize wouldn’t even come in second. I would have to keep my kid’s faces after their games this morning – Son Number One beaming like the sun after he helped score the winning goal at his soccer game, and Son Number Two smiling with all those missing teeth as he raced for home plate. Score!

I hope you all have a week filled with whatever treasures your little heart desires. And maybe a book contract from the Easter bunny, hmm? Now THAT would be golden…

So, Are You Successful Yet?

When I was in high school, my Senior English teacher asked one of those questions that seemed provocative at the time, but was really just her pointing out how we were all sleepwalking through our lives since we hadn’t really ever thought about anything substantial. The question was something along the lines of: What is success?

It being the ’80s, we all whipped out our TI Scientific calculators to help us reach the dollar figure it would take to buy the moon and Fiji. I can’t even remember what I said or thought, of course. I mean, high school was a looooooong time ago. I DO know that not long after, she assigned a poem to me to memorize. This one. Ouch.

So, I must have said something annoying, right?

But, last night, I was talking to my husband about what I wanted from my writing, if and when I ever actually get a book published. (Yeah, I guess that would now be an important part of what I need to be successful. Hoo boy.) Here’s pretty much what I said:

I don’t really dream about getting on those lists. You know, the award-winning ones, like the Texas Bluebonnet lists, the Newbery Honors. (You can stop laughing now. Jeeesh.)

What I dream about is a whole lot of kids reading my books in inappropriate places – church, school assemblies, the dinner table – and laughing so hard they get in trouble. Kids spending nights up late under the covers with a flashlight reading my words, kids handing my book on to their best friends the instant they’re done because it’s so freaking hilarious. Parents saying, “Oh, Lordy, is your kid reading that trash, too? It’s such a shame –  these kids have no taste – but at least he’s reading.” I dream of offending a thousand parents, and delighting tens of thousands of kids.

I want to fill the world with kids’ laughter.

Okay. That’s my secret dream. What’s yours? How will you know, Writer Friends, if you’ve been successful at your chosen work? If you’re as far away from high school as I am, I bet you don’t even think once about a dollar figure.

A Contest (or two) for You

Oh, Writer Friends, I wasn’t being flippant in my last post. I do adore you. And so, I will share the following with you all: One of my agent-sisters (Suzette Saxton) is having a contest on her blog, with some very nice prizes. The grand prize is a 40-page partial submission WITH critique with Mon Agent Extraordinaire, Suzie Townsend. Seriously, go sign up for this now! Or before March 14th.

Those of you who know me well also know I have a sort of obsession with silent auctions. There’s one going on right now that no one seems to know about. I bid on quite a few items, and felt so guilty at the thought that I might get them without any competition at all… So, I’m sharing the site with you. Go ahead, overbid me. It won’t be hard. There are amazing things/books/critiques available here, and it all goes to help a new independent bookstore in Utah, Fire Petal Books.

Unrelated note: Right now, my sweet husband is upstairs reading the latest draft of Raymond. I think he was worried I loved my Betas more than him, and he wanted in on the hot Beta love action. Smart man. 😉

Tiny Scraps of News… Yum.

I did it. I just finished my torturing of a young boy… I mean, my revision of Raymond. Now, off to a couple of Betas to make sure I don’t just “think” I’ve pulled it off.

But I think I may have. Squeee!

And now I face the prospect of a week at least before my Blessed Betas get back to me, before L’Agent Extraordinaire finishes reading the very rough and drafty MS I sent her last week… a week where I am free to write SOMETHING NEW!!! Something fresh and sparkly, NOT revised! Wheee! Okay… should I finish that “Highlights”-esque story I started? Or fall back into my love affair with The Gingerbread School, my dark fairy-tale inspired MG? Yummy. I think THAT one. It tastes like fudge.

(Don’t worry, Writer Friends. I haven’t forgotten. The Holy Toast is my summer fun writing project. I will get it finished this year, promise. And it will be HI-larious.)

Of course, it’s also spring break for the kiddies this week. That might throw a wrench in the works…

Ooo! Tiny scraps of news: Got an email from another magazine editor who loved an essay I sent her! So, it could be in the May issue. Final word in a few weeks. Also, two anthologies with my essays in them are out and for sale: The Ultimate Christian Living, and A Cup of Comfort for Mothers.  Also, The Front Range Review with my poem, “Burn Barrels.” I do so love my name in print.

And you, Writer Friends. I love you, too.

Hurting the Characters You Love

And no, I’m not talking about your kids or mine, even though they may indeed be “characters.” I’m talking about those kids we kid’s fiction writers create on the page and then — somewhere between writing The End and the call from your friend/agent/beta reader with revision ideas/suggestions/orders/demands to beef up your plot — we fall in love with.

I was sitting on my porch on Monday, wondering why I was having such a hard time revising one of my manuscripts when it popped into my head that the only thing keeping me from tearing into that revision with the necessary gusto was that I loved my main character too much.

Let’s call him Raymond, shall we? Precious little Raymond.

Raymond is just about everything I like in a kid. He’s sneaky, mischievous, funny, overly dramatic, smart, geeky, and deeply insecure. He has his own very special moral code, which might not be immediately recognizable as, well, moral to many old farts/adults. I wrote him, sure. I even found myself disapproving of his antics from time to time. Okay, not really. But I knew I *should* disapprove, if I were a “Good Parent.” Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the little squirt. He became – like Pinocchio, like so many characters from books I read as a child — a real boy. My perfect, my precious. (Go ahead, do your Smeagol/Gollum voice here; I did.)

Of course, once I realized what I’d done, that the thing holding me back from making my manuscript better (um, hello? The *job* of a writer???) was that I didn’t want Raymond to suffer, it wasn’t a problem any more. Hey, I didn’t stick that post-it on my writing desk with those three magic words just to fill the space! What three words, you ask?

Hurt your characters.

Long story short-ish? I’m applying a whole lotta Tough Love to poor little Raymond this week. I hope it’ll make the book better. Who knows? Maybe it would work in the real world, too. (cue evil laughter)

(No, no. Bad Mommy. Hurt your characters, not your children. Very important to remember.)

Write well, friends. And be vicious and brutal to your fictional children. 😉

Revising: Swimsuit Shopping or Shoe Shopping?

I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve discovered something that’s more terrifying, humiliating, and painful than trying on a pile of swimsuits in April, after a long winter of chocolates and eggnog lattes.

Revising.

I’ve also discovered something that’s more thrilling, energizing, and plain-old-fashioned fun than a trip to Nordstrom’s with a girlfriend to buy shoes.

Yup, you guessed it. That would be revising again.

As my Writer Friends know (because I’ve been whining about it for weeks), I’m working on revisions to two separate manuscripts. The revisions on one of them are not going well. I fix a bit, add a little sub-plot beefiness there, change a few lines of dialogue, and step back to read it. That one mental step back somehow causes me to lose all objectivity. I cannot tell if I have made things better, worse, or just re-shuffled the deck. Very frustrating. In fact, this whole manuscript has become the “swimsuit in April” experience for me. Even if everything were perfect -the prose tight, the humor sexy, the characters lean and lovely —  I would still lack objectivity. I would still not be able to walk away feeling satisfied with myself.

I would still have to run home, crying, and consume batch after batch of chocolate chip-walnut-self-loathing cookies. (Yes, it has been a baking week chez Nikki. A bad sign.)

And then there’s the OTHER manuscript. Revising this one makes me feel like I’m shoe-shopping on payday. It’s fun, energizing, and nothing I try goes wrong. Bliss.

It’s a good thing I had manuscript number two to work on, or I probably would have gone mad by now. Or eaten so many cookies the real swimsuit shopping in April would destroy me this year.

Have any of you had this happen — lost all objectivity when it came to revising a novel? What did you find worked for you? Did you ever get back your eye for “rightness” in your writing?

Or did you go mad and burn your manuscript up in the oven with one final batch of cookies? Not that *I* am considering such a thing…

Oh, I loved THIS this week – Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.

And on the reading front? This weekend I had The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr, and Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith to go with those cookies. Yum!