Monday, April 15, 2019

The Weeks

I've had a rough couple of weeks with the writing. You know how sometimes things just flow, and then how other times it feels like a massive grind just to type a sentence or two?

I've been in a grind phase now for a couple of weeks, the exact weeks, as it happens, that I've been back in school from spring break. Luckily, there are a few strategies that we can use to press ever onward:

First of all, we can remember that almost all writers hate writing from time to time. You can find any number of quotes from famous and lauded writers about how awful it can be to write. I just found one from Anne Tyler, who is inarguably brilliant and has written 22 novels: "If I waited till I felt like writing, I'd never write at all." See? Even she just has to make herself do it.

Second of all, we can set a timer and just promise to work for a very short interval. I recommend something less than twenty minutes. I go for 15 first in the morning, and then I switch to 10. In between the intervals, I can do something else like make tea or do the New York Times mini crossword. Incidentally, if you like the NYTIMES mini crossword, could you let me know? We could be leaderboard friends. You know how I love a good leaderboard.

Third of all, we can remember that the first draft is always just objectively terrible. Write the worst thing you can possibly think of. That's how it's supposed to be. Jodi Picoult, author of 25 novels, says, "I may write garbage, but you can always edit garbage. You can't edit a blank page."

I literally repeat these things to myself every morning. Things like, "Just do it," and "Write badly!" Someday soon, I hope the writing comes more smoothly again. It probably will, and then it will inevitably get worse again. Oh well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Anti-Thrill List

Well, we're having a winter storm event. It's mid-April and these things happen here in Minnesota, but I'll admit I'm not thrilled. Other things that don't thrill me:


  • Kids kicking other kids. I did tell the kicked kid that there is some danger in crawling under tables pretending to be a cat, but still, we all know we shouldn't kick.
  • Delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS. This condition causes water retention and discomfort. It's tough being an athlete in one's forties.
  • Homework. One of my kids sometimes requires vigilance and assistance in homework completion. Let's just all skip it, shall we?
  • Rhubarb. There was a rhubarb-based dessert in the cafeteria the other day, and while I enjoy most foods, I just don't care for rhubarb. Next time, let's hit the fruit-based dessert with a little apple flavor. Maybe some peach.
Thanks for carefully considering this list.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Water Club

The other day, Lee wrote about conflicts in third grade.

I'd also like to tell you about something that's happening in third grade. That something is called Water Club. If you're in Water Club, what you do is, every time you walk past a water fountain, you try to put as much water from the fountain as you can on top of your head.

How stupid, right?

A couple of people have taken Water Club to the max by going into the bathroom and getting drenched in the sink. I think we can all agree that this Club doesn't maximize learning. I think we can all see that making a different choice besides the one to be in Water Club might be preferable. I think we can all understand why I'm going to have to ban Water Club. That's right. Water Club is going the way of Rolling Around on the Rug Club and Scream in the Hallway Club.

I'm putting my foot down.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Mostly for Writers: The Timeline



A year ago, I signed with my agent, a super smart woman named Joanna MacKenzie who works at Nelson Literary Agency. And next year at about this time, my first novel will be out from Penguin Random House and available for purchase in numerous venues.

It feels crazy and surreal.

Way back when I was in fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Hollenbeck, said I was the most likely in her class to publish a novel. I was flattered by this praise, and, in fact, I planned on writing several novels. I'd already begun one or two, and my mom said they were quite good.

I'm sure that as a fifth-grader, I didn't think it'd take me 30 or so years to actually put a book in the publishing pipeline. Other things got in the way, of course--exciting and important life and career events. But now, I'm happy to be living out the destiny prescribed to me by my teacher, Mrs. H.

Since I announced my book deal in December, lots of people have expressed surprise about just how long it takes to get a book into actual stores. "Spring Twenty-TWENTY?!" they exclaim when I mention the release date. I agree that it seems like an insanely long process, but by publishing standards, my path has been pretty short and straightforward.

Sometimes people like to know these things, and so I'm going to write it out. Here's the "when" of the path to publication for Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes so far:

Fall 2004: I started writing this blog after writing nothing but academic papers for at least 10 years. The reason the earliest posts aren't here is that I first used a now-defunct platform, the name of which I can no longer remember. I wrote like crazy on this website, usually posting more than a hundred short pieces per year. I worked on dialogue and humor and crafting stupid little life experiences into things I felt were worth saving. I interacted with other writers and felt like a real writer myself. Basically, the blog changed my life, and though I wished it were more popular, it didn't really matter that almost no one read it.

January 2014: I decided to "reclaim my reader identity" (I'm sure I got this phrase from Lee) by resolving to read 52 books per year. Best resolution ever. I read lots of books I wished I'd written.

January 2015: Since I liked my new reader identity so much, I decided to work on my "writer identity" (again, stolen, I'm sure), and I started drafting a way-too-ambitious family saga that spanned generations. Beginning that book was an important step, but it wasn't really meant to be.

December 2015: Over winter break, I started writing a different thing about a woman who ran through a crowd of kids at her son's school, checking the drama bulletin board to see which part he'd gotten and injuring a teenaged girl in the process. KK and I had dreamed up this scenario between classes at the middle school where we taught. We thought it was hilarious.

Spring 2016-Fall 2017: I took several online courses about how to write a book, met a fabulous critique group, worked with a developmental editor, and coerced several people into reading my manuscript about the theater mom and (of course) a beleaguered English teacher. Finally, I felt the book was finished enough to query in early 2018.

January 2018: I sent out an initial five query letters to literary agents, none of which resulted in manuscript requests.

February 2018: I finaled in a contest called Sun vs. Snow that helps writers get their work in front of agents. I got my first two manuscript requests this way, and I felt more confident about the whole process of trying to get an agent. My submission materials were better after working with a mentor through the contest. I also hired an editor to help me polish them.

February-March 2018: I sent an additional seven queries to agents I thought might like my book. Two of these people asked to read the whole thing and then offered to represent me. I picked Joanna.

May 2018: Joanna and Angie, the in-house editor at Nelson, sent me an eleven-page editorial letter along with line edits. As gently as they could, they told me I'd need to rewrite the book to fix character and conflict problems before we tried to sell it.

May-August 2018: I wrote and rewrote and cried and had panic attacks. But, even as I suffered, I realized Joanna and Angie were right about all eleven pages of their feedback. The book would be way better after the rewrite. Elated and exhausted, I turned it back into Joanna in the first week of August.

September 2018: Joanna wrote me a much shorter editorial letter in which she detailed about three-weeks' worth of further revisions. When I first got the email, I freaked. I couldn't even open it, feeling like I was in for another ten weeks of tortured self-doubt; but my writer friend Alison read the suggestions first and talked me down.

October 2018: I did a few more clean-up edits, and then, by the last week of the month, Joanna blessedly said it was ready to send to a list of about twelve editors whom she'd contacted.

November 2018: The book sold to Kerry Donovan an editor at Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in what's called a preempt, which means they paid a little more so other people couldn't also look at it. Berkley announced that the pub date would be "Spring twenty-TWENTY," and away we go.

There's a whole new timeline about what happens next. It's exciting, right? But, I don't want to be boring about the whole thing. I'll be back to amusing anecdotes about daily life in no time.





Sunday, March 10, 2019

Status Report

Television: After a long and frustrating search, Dan and I have landed on The Americans as our new joint show. I think we can all agree that The Americans is superior to the Bachelor Franchise, which has, unfortunately, provided most of our entertainment in the last several years.

Last night while we watched the first three episodes of The Americans, in which the leads are married KGB agents, we started suspecting one another of being spies. While it's still possible that Dan is a spy, he did finally come around to the realization that while I have many gifts, I'm not really suited to covert operations. The reasons include the fact I already work at two verified jobs, I go to sleep between 9 and 10 every night, and most damning, I can only understand people with midwestern accents. I'm not proud of this last fact, but it's undeniable.

Books: Yesterday, I finished a round of developmental edits on my first book and sent them back to my editor. Although I did beef up the arc of a teenaged character in a satisfying way, there wasn't a whole ton to do this time, I think because of the Massive Rewrite of the Summer of 2018. That rewrite was incredibly painful, but many times I've been grateful that I did it. I was grateful once again yesterday while I danced maniacally around my living room, celebrating "The End" for yet another time. We're close to the last "The End" now, and I can't believe it.

Daylight Savings Time: I've never been a huge fan of this day or program; however, I will persevere. It's better now that the children are older and unaffected. Yes, I'm disappointed that I have one fewer hour in which to finish my lesson plans. I could try to stay up later, but it turns out I'm quite rigid on bedtime. As I mentioned before, that limits my potential as a spy. On reflection, I'm realizing it might limit my potential in other areas, as well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Head Cold

I have a head cold. I know it's irrational, but I generally view any viral illness--really any infirmity, bacterial, viral, or musculoskeletal--as a personal failing. I don't view other people's health problems this way. It's just me.

Did I fall down in my handwashing?

Did I eat inflammatory foods?

Did I otherwise fail to most valiantly battle against prevalent airborne infections?

Certainly, there's something I could have done, and so I've been beating myself up about the cold for several days now. I've also been inhaling steam infused with oil of oregano. I've slathered the area between my nose and my mouth with Aquaphor so as not to look like an eight-year-old who can't manage her Kleenex. I've been taking ibuprofen to manage my headache. I've avoided juicy coughing in public whenever possible.

I felt a little better today. Tomorrow, I'll feel even better. I can feel righteous about my relatively short viral illness. I can try harder to avoid the next one. I can never give up.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Looking Forward

Next year, I'm not planning to be a teacher. Instead, I'm going to be a full-time writer. This decision, while not necessarily permanent, seems relatively life-changing in all kinds of big and small ways.

For instance, I'll be able to get my haircut on a weekday. Also, I can stay home if a repair person needs to make a service call. If I get sick, it won't require hours of work and worry to miss a day of school. Dan won't have to leave his job if there's an ortho appointment or the dog needs to go to the vet. We can do our Costco run on Monday mornings instead of during the apocalyptic weekend hours. It won't be hard to make dinner or exercise.

Perhaps most importantly, I have a fighting chance at finishing my second book by the deadline of January 1, 2020. That's the real reason why I'm making this change, but the whole family is kind of fantasizing about the aforementioned other benefits. Shef raised his arms in victory when I told him the plan, and I don't think he was necessarily thinking of my glorious hours in a sunny co-working space, writing snappy dialogue and clever plot twists.

Of course, there are downsides to the pivot, as well. Most notable is the fact that I like my job. Teaching is more of an identity than a profession. I've done it for nearly 20 years, for basically all of my working life. And, I recently changed jobs from secondary to elementary teaching. The switch has revitalized me and turned me into a learner all over again. I'm sorry to leave it just as I'm getting started, especially because searching for another new teacher so soon will inconvenience my colleagues.

But, being a full-time novelist for a year or two or maybe longer? That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, don't you think? I've got to give it shot.