Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Holidays Are Coming!

It's here, isn't it? That busy, social stretch of time that extroverts love and introverts get all anxious about. Shopping in crowded stores that are blaring Christmas music and assaulting me with cinnamon smells, flashing lights, little sleigh bells that jingle on every door. Planning family gatherings with divorced and remarried parents, which means four different get-togethers with various factions of the family in a good year. Endless planning and cleaning and cooking and shopping. It's not that I don't love the holidays: decorating the tree with my girls, laughing and catching up with family, watching my girls' faces light up when they open their gifts. It's that I don't love everything else about the holidays. The gear-up, the pressure, the shopping, the clean-up pre- and post-gathering, the un-decorating, the friends with their timely hand-written Christmas cards and home-made sugar cookies from scratch that make me feel like I never got the proper domestic gene.

For me this busy time of year starts in early October, when we haven't even fully settled into the school routine yet, and I suddenly need to plan my daughter's birthday party. Then comes Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. My other daughter's birthday. Valentine's Day (which is a stress-free holiday unless you have school kids who need to do 30+ valentines each). And then, finally, I get to breathe a sigh of relief and focus on non-holiday things for a stretch.

So, by this time of year, when the Thanksgiving "what dishes will you bring?" emails are going around and the stores are already celebrating Christmas, I'm already tired.

But I'm happy to say that this year, it's different. While the holidays and family time matter, they aren't the center of my days this time around. This year, my days are spent writing first, and planning and shopping second. And not the kind of writing I was doing last year at this time, the "I sure hope someday somebody takes a chance on me" writing that I had been doing for years. This year it's all happened. Someone did take a chance on me. In the past 12 months I've gotten a literary agent, revised The Art of Adapting word for word with his excellent guidance, dug deep and dumped my fears and found out what I really have inside me. I'm proud of the novel I ended up with. The Art of Adapting is the best thing I've written. And then came the book deal. Getting a publishing contract has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. The kind of dream that's so big and so unlikely that you never think about what happens after it comes true. This holiday season, my days are filled with discovering what happens next.

And what happens next is this: looking over copyedits of my novel for my publisher, going back and forth with them as we try to find the perfect cover design, and writing my next novel. I pulled off the birthday party, Halloween was great, Thanksgiving's just about all planned out, I've even started some Christmas shopping. And my anxiety about the whole thing is practically nil, because every morning I wake up not thinking about all of the holiday tasks I need to complete, but how I need to trim that lengthy backstory passage, or work in a hint at a character's secret through dialogue, or find the best words to describe the scent of a summer morning.

The holidays are still barreling straight for me, like they always do. My kids are right this second sitting on the couch with notepads on their knees making epic wish lists for Christmas. I'm shut inside my office, trying to drown out the Disney Channel, writing. I will not be sending out Christmas cards. I won't be making sugar cookies. I will be writing, putting the finishing touches on my second novel, proofing the layout of The Art of Adapting, settling on the right cover design, continuing the outline for my third novel. And wishing all of you the best kind of holiday season. One where your days are spent doing what you love most, visiting with the people you love most, and where the stress of all that you "should" do to prepare and celebrate gets forgotten. Happy holidays!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Summer's End

We had lofty plans for the summer. Okay, not lofty. But we had plans. Most of which didn't ever make it out of the planning stage. They didn't include me selling my first novel (The Art of Adapting) to a real, bonafide publisher just as the school year was winding to an end, so some things turned out a billion times better than planned. They also didn't include my daughter needing 8 stitches in her knee and weeks of healing time, and having to cancel several activities as a result. But here's what we did do this summer:

We went to the horse races, and during the intermission, they held wiener dog races, which are just as hysterical as they sound. Some of those dogs really book it on those short legs. Some run in the complete wrong direction. Some get taken out by huge, unexplained dog piles mid-track. The girls loved it. My youngest, who is on a mission to pet every dog in the universe, got several of them crossed off her list that day.

We took a couple of family trips with my mother, sister, and niece. Somehow we have all ended up single at the same time, with only daughters. We are an all-girl family. Which means lots of fun girl-time when we're all together, wherever we are. And you just can't have too much girl time. My daughters call their cousin their "sister-cousin" which shows how close they are. Just watching the three youngsters play together, at 4, 6, and 8 years old, is a joy like nothing else.

We went to the library, a local amusement park, to swimming pools, and had play dates. The usual stuff, and nothing special, except that I was with my daughters, watching them get taller and stronger and less shy about walking up to the girl behind the counter at the frozen yogurt place and asking for a cup of water all by themselves. Small milestones, but milestones just the same.

I wrote. Not as much as I would've liked, because there were these kids around so much, but when your work day consists of jotting down notes for the chapter you don't have time to write, surrounded on both ends by cuddles with your children, telling them stories, watching them do cartwheels and handstands, making homemade snow cones, and taking endless photos of them being their adorable selves, you have a pretty good life.

And that's the difference for me this summer, compared to last. Yes, the book deal helped immensely. Knowing that The Art of Adapting was going to be in print next July took a lot of pressure off me. Knowing that I had an income on the way in the tail-end of my divorce also relieved a lot of stress. Last summer I was still scraping by while chasing the dream, and felt frustrated when I wasn't making any progress. This summer I wanted time to slow down. I want this moment, the butterflies every time I wake up and remember that my novel is actually getting published, to last as long as possible. I want to relish every moment with my girls, because I can see how fast they are growing up. My eight-year-old is already so tall she barely fits in my lap. Which means I need to get those lap times in as often as I can.

My girls know that The Art of Adapting is getting published. They know that it was inspired by their Uncle Michael, who they will never meet, who had Asperger's. They had lots of questions about Asperger's, and about the other characters in the book. My six-year-old had me summarize the entire novel for her, and after three days of recounting it for her, she told me it sounded good to her. But my girls weren't clear on what getting "published" meant. They wanted to know the difference between my agent, my publisher, and my editor. They wanted to know how books are made. How they get to the bookstore. Who decides how much they cost. Who designs the covers and makes the paper and where the ink comes from. They have more questions than I have answers, but it makes this whole journey more fun and meaningful to have them to share it with, to discover the answers with them.

Originally I wanted to put them in summer camp somewhere so I could have a lot more writing time. Another summer plan that didn't work out, for financial reasons, and I'm grateful for that. My writing time will come. Time with my girls is fleeting.

The school grind kicks off next week for us. Back to lunch prep, stirring cranky girls from bed, brushing their hair while they eat breakfast, and rushing off to school always a few minutes later than we meant to get out the door. Back to homework and school projects that end up being more work for the parent than they are for the child. Back to the weekly "your child has been exposed to lice/strep throat/pink eye" notices. Back to the field trips that I always volunteer for then wonder what I was thinking. And back to writing, all day while they are at school. I have two new novel ideas battling it out in my brain, and my editor and I are going to be working on final revisions for The Art of Adapting. I have plenty of work to do, the kind of work that I love so much that it can't really be called work, and the time to do it. And I'll love every minute of it. And I'll also miss the lazy summer days, sitting on the front steps while the girls draw chalk mermaids on the driveway or put on fashion shows that morph into gymnastics performances for me. I'm ready for summer to be over, and I'm not. Which is exactly how it should feel at summer's end.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Single Motherhood

This is what single-motherhood looks like: 8-year-old in the back seat, bleeding profusely from a bone-deep gash on her knee, paper towels soaked in her blood beneath a dish towel I tied in a hasty knot around her leg. Her 6-year-old sister, so queasy from the sight of the wound that her face is not green but grey, holding a mixing bowl in her lap and a wad of napkins in her hand. It's nearing their bedtime, we never got to eat the dinner I made, I'm nursing a burn on my forearm from my haste to get the dinner out of the oven, the sleepover guest was sent home in a tearful, frightened rush, and I'm racing toward the clinic that will stitch my daughter up, all the while reassuring her that she's fine, it isn't that bad, it won't hurt much. I'm lying. The wound looked horrible. A half-dollar sized hole that showed her nice white bone beneath. I know it will hurt like hell. But I'm all she's got, and so I'm building her up as best I can as I speed down the street. That's single motherhood. It's not pretty. But it's reality.

We've had our share of illnesses, injuries, late-night rushes to after-hours urgent care clinics and it's always been this way. The three of us. One injured kid, one focused mom, one kid dragged along for the ride because that's just how it is. We rise and fall together. We see each other through the highs and lows. We are a united front.

Once the wound was cleaned, stitched up, bandaged, and we were on our way home, then I got my bonus mommy-points. The queasy kid felt better the moment her sister was up and walking without tears. The injured kid loved how numb her whole leg felt. And they both loved me. "You're the best mommy ever," the wounded one said. "I would've been so scared if you weren't there." She'd already forgotten that I had to sit on her while the doctor injected the wound over and over to numb it. She was in relief mode. "You always know exactly what to do," the no-longer queasy one said. Her clean, unused bowl was upside down on her head, a large blue hat, and her complexion was pink again. We were all giggling about the mixing-bowl hat. "I really like our family," one kid said, and the other agreed, and I concurred. We arrived home, responded to the concerned messages that had come in, warmed up our dinner, and ate and laughed and sang and did all that we could to forget those frightening moments after my daughter came running in from the back yard, blood everywhere, to tell me she fell down and it was bad.

When my marriage was failing, this was exactly the kind of scenario that I feared the most. How would I handle all of it, every bad thing, alone? Not even alone, but with two kids in tow? But the answer is, I just would. Because that's what you do. Some nights there will be emergencies and no back-up. Those nights you put your fear aside and get the job done. And in those moments you realize that you had nothing to fear, because you're a hell of a lot stronger than you thought you were.

My 8-year-old daughter is the emotional one, the sensitive one, the worrier. She rarely gets hurt, because she's my careful one. Seeing her injured and frightened was hard. But it was also an opportunity to pass along some of my hard-earned wisdom. "You've got this," I told her as she cried, bracing for the pain of the lidocaine shots. "You're so much stronger than you know." And after it was all over, as she cradled the toys they'd given her from the treasure box and admired her new blue bandage, she smiled up at me. "You're right," she said. "I am stronger than I thought." Later she tried to convince me that her sister, the fearless one, my usually-injured child, is actually stronger, and I wouldn't let her get away with that. "You're equally strong," I told her. "The only difference is that your sister knows she's strong, and you don't believe it about yourself yet." She let that sit for a few minutes, then she raised her head and stuck out her chin, just a little. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe I am strong. Maybe I'm as strong as you."

And that's what single motherhood looks like, too. Having those moments, when you first see that fight in your daughter's eyes, first see her begin to believe in her own bottomless well of strength, and you get to keep those powerful moments all to yourself, because you were the one who was there when it happened.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

It's Official

I have a novel coming out! This crazy, decades-long dream of mine is becoming a reality, just like that. My awesome agent, Harvey Klinger, who expertly and kindly helped me shape my book, by showing me what unnecessary sections to cut, where to deepen characters, where to tighten the action, gave me the best Mother's Day gift by pronouncing my novel ready for submission to publishers. Two weeks later, I had a book deal. This next phase in my journey is happening head-snapping fast, but it also took a long time to come, which is probably the best way to receive success--pay your dues, dream your dream, work all day every day at it as hard as you possibly can, and then let it come.

This particular book, The Art of Adapting, (my 5th novel attempt) came fast and furiously, like it fully downloaded into my brain as I slept, and I raced through my writing sessions each day to keep up with the words filling my mind. I knew it centered around a man with Asperger's, inspired by but not based on my uncle who had Asperger's, and the rest followed quickly once I'd made that choice. His sister came to me next. She was going through a divorce, sort of empty-nesting with her new lack of a husband and children who no longer needed her as much as they once had. Her brother was going to be her new project. Her two teenage children caught in this family-in-flux also demanded their own voices. Her son was vying for popularity while lusting after his best-friend's sister, trying to get up the nerve to abandon a promising athletic future to pursue his true love, art. Her perfectionist daughter was battling invisibility, her first academic falterings, first love, and anorexia. The structure was set. Alternating voices of these four characters, each going through their own separate issues, each learning that fine balance of both standing alone and leaning on the people who love you. I had my first draft done in a few months, put it away while I started a new novel, then returned to it for revisions, sent it off to my beta readers, and revised one last time based on their feedback.

When I finished my novel, I decided to query agents in batches of 5, one batch per week. It seemed less overwhelming that way. I started with my top 5 choices. Harvey Klinger was among them. He got back to me a few hours after receiving my submission, and asked to see the opening chapters. A month later he asked to see the whole manuscript. Two weeks later, he wrote to say that it had potential but needed work, and that if I was willing to revise it with his direction, he was sure we could turn it into something he could sell. I had no idea what a significant moment that was when I accepted his offer and got to work. I was thrilled to have anyone out there believe in my book, in me. I knew the book wasn't perfect. I couldn't wait to make it better. Over the next few months, I cut over half of my preciously-written words (almost 50k words cut in all--ouch). I eliminated endless pages of backstory, minor characters, distracting plot lines, weak scenes, some entire chapters, and delved deeper into everything left. The best thing about Harvey is that his critique style worked so well with my writing style. He told me where my trouble areas were, and left it to me to fix the problems. He asked some great, hard questions, and I wrote and cut and revised until I had the answers. The book is now a fairly different manuscript than the one I initially sent to him, but every word of it is still mine.

When Harvey started the submissions process I tried not to think about it. I'd heard how long it can take for an agent to sell a book, horror stories of a year gone by and no interested publishers. Still, I checked my cell phone and email about a hundred times a day, just wondering. Nine days later, I got a nice email message that we had an interested publisher, and Harvey said he'd get back to me as soon as he knew more. When he called a few days later, the first thing Harvey said to me was "Sit down." I did. "Sold," he said. I don't really remember the rest of our conversation.

And just like that, come next spring The Art of Adapting will be published by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. It will have gone from words in my head to a real concrete thing that I can hold in my hands and show my kids and beg my friends and family to buy so that I can sign it with ridiculous gushings about how much I love each and every one of them. I can't tell you how many times I've hovered outside a bookstore wondering what it'd be like to see one of my own novels on display there. The fact that this will be happening in less than a year is mind-blowing. The kind of shock to the system that keeps waking me up at 3am, wondering if it's all really, finally happening, or if I was dreaming.

I can tell next year's going to be a crazy busy, crazy good year. I can feel how all of the time I've spent mastering the perfect balance of this single mom gig with blocks of time set aside for writing is about to get shaken up and I'll have to rebalance frequently and call in some serious babysitting favors along the way. But I'm ready. My girls are aware that with this new phase in my career comes time away from them. I've promised to take them with me when I can, because I don't want to give up the mommy gig, and because I want them to be a part of this next phase, too. It's as much for them as it is for me. They've given up a fair share of mommy time for this book. They've seen me spending hours on end in front of my computer, talking out loud to myself as I test phrases and snippets of dialogue. They get the quiet, introverted part of the job. But I don't think they had a clear sense of the end goal. I promised them a family trip to Hawaii once I'd sold my book, though, and you better believe it took them all of ten seconds to make good on that promise.

My daughters are both rock-star readers, reading several grades ahead of their age, and they both have a natural gift for writing that I wish I could say I taught them, but had absolutely nothing to do with. At six and eight, they know a lot more about this craft than I did at their ages, and they both get used as examples of good writing in their classes frequently. I know they inherently understand the nuts-and-bolts part of my job, but now I want them to understand what all of those writing sessions of mine were working toward. When I stand in that bookstore for the first time, looking at my novel on display there, I want them standing beside me.

Until then, it's back to work on my new novel. The character voices are so strong that I wake up in mid-conversation with them. I'm not sure where it's headed yet, but I know the only way to find out is to push the excitement aside for a few hours a day to write. My daughters are my best cheerleaders, always. They have promised to give me quiet time to write this summer while they are off school. Once the Hawaii trip is booked.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Call

It happened today. I got the call. Writers talk about "getting the call" like it's some mythical thing, a fairy godmother moment when all of your dreams magically come true. Because it is.

Today my agent, the passionate, brilliant, patient mentor of my dreams, Harvey Klinger, called me to say that my novel revisions are done, my book is ready, and he's going to start sending it out to acquisitions editors at publishing houses. Today I am not just a writer who locks herself up in her office for 5 hours every day and pours her heart onto a blank page hoping someday someone out there will care to read a few words of it. Today is the day I take the next step.

It's been a long journey, to say the least. I started writing short stories when I was 8, after a student-teacher visited my fourth grade class and gave us the first paragraph of a story, and an assignment to write an ending for it. We were supposed to add a paragraph or two. Four pages later, I had discovered a passion I never knew was there. So I wrote, almost daily, from then on. Occasionally I showed a story to my mother or sister, but rarely anyone else. Writing was a private thing for me, best done by flashlight in a journal after I was supposed to be asleep.

I had awesome English teachers in both junior high and high school (let's raise a toast to public school teachers who can reach through the bureaucracy to inspire kids!). These teachers recognized a glimmer of talent in the super shy petite girl who never raised her hand or spoke above a whisper. They made me read my papers aloud to the class as examples of good writing. They made me believe in myself and stop thinking of writing as purely a private thing.

On the encouragement of those teachers, I went to college as a writing major, where I learned to love writing workshops and critique groups and hanging out with other writers who were crazy talented and chasing the same big dream. I generated a ton of writing in college, but I never tried to publish any of it. That still seemed like something for other, better writers, not me.

But from the moment I finished college, I missed it. The camaraderie of writers. I lucked into an editing job with no editing training. I loved my job, but it was mostly correcting grammar and drafting department newsletters and brochures, and it didn't feed my creative writing side. So I decided to go to grad school, to immerse myself back into the stew of writers taking risks and pushing themselves and dreaming big. It was a hard two years. I was in the middle of a divorce which I insisted on doing myself, because why hire a lawyer to do a bunch of paperwork I could do myself? I was working full-time and going to school full-time, leaving me with about thirty seconds of down time each day. I gave up eating and sleeping and TV and movies and seeing friends and family. I came down with mono and refused to miss a single class because I had no free time to make up missed assignments. And I loved every minute of it. I was in workshops with some of the most talented writers I'd ever seen. I was inspired by them, pushed by them, and I stretched and grew as a writer.

And then I graduated: exhilarated, exhausted, totally burnt out, and took a break. I got remarried. I had kids. I settled into the life of a mom and wife first and foremost. Writing became a sometimes-hobby, not a passion. I squeezed it in around the edges, never giving it my full attention. I was freelance-editing from home while caring for two kids a year and a half apart, two babies at once, really, with a husband who was gone a lot for work. I was exhausted, sleep-deprived, friend-deprived, passion-deprived. And as it all slowly began to unravel, the marriage and the life I thought I'd always wanted, I realized the only thing that had always made me 100% happy was writing. And I wasn't writing.

I started again. Small at first. A couple of hours a couple times a week. Short stories and outlines for books and random scenes for screenplays. I wrote my first (terrible) novel that none of you will ever see, but I learned a lot in the process. I took a risk and started submitting short stories. My first story was a finalist for a Glimmer Train contest. That's not a small thing, but I didn't know it at the time. I just thought: wow, recognition is great! And it lit a fire, and it made me happy, every second of every day that I spent writing eclipsed the sadness of my failing marriage and doubts about my skills as a frequently-solo mother. So I kept at it. Writing, submitting, writing, submitting. I made a choice, to pursue writing with all that I had, to pour every feeling that I had bottled up inside onto the page. Writing is a solitary thing, and one of the hard things about my life was that I was alone too much, always with kids in tow, but without enough grown-up friends or family around to remind me of who I was aside from a mom. Writing became that friend. And then a funny thing happened. The joy that writing gave me opened me back up, and suddenly I had a whole slew of great new friends who knew me as a writer and not just a mom. And then I began to see myself that way.

My kids know that I'm a writer. When people ask them what I do, they are quick to say "My mom's a writer." It took me years to own that label, to introduce myself to people as a writer. Even after getting published, I had only ever earned income as an editor. How could I call myself a writer? Even after getting award recognition for a novel, I was reluctant to use the term. Even though I was spending hours each day writing, I had trouble owning it.

So that's the big difference that getting the call makes. I still earn my income editing other writers' maniscripts. But now, now I feel like I can own that "Writer" label with pride. Now I have people in the business who know a lot more about writing and publishing than I do calling me a writer. Now I have a voicemail that I will save forever from the best agent ever telling me: "You did it. You're ready." That was the call. And it's changed everything.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Every night when I put my girls to bed, each one gets 10 minutes of uninterrupted, sister-free cuddle time with me to do with as they please. My 8-year-old likes to spend her 10 minutes telling me about her day as she sketches her endless fashion lines. At 8 years old she has more fashion sense and style than I ever will. I've made peace with that. And I'm ridiculously impressed with her skills. She can craft an entire seasonal wardrobe in about ten minutes, from clothes to shoes to accessories. I have no idea where this innate sense of style comes from, but I'm glad one of us has it.

My 6-year-old, insatiable reader that she is, wants a story during cuddle time every night. She's read every book in the house a dozen times, so she wants something original. My task is to tell her a new story every night, developed on the spot, to fit within the 10-minute time-frame. I can get behind that. This child was made for me. I mean, of course she was...I made her. But you know what I mean. The 8-year-old is my physical mini-me. We have the same face. But my 6-year-old is my secret mini-me. She's me on the inside. Only better.

I come into her room at night and find her flipping through books, scouring the wall-stickers decorating her room, the toys strewn about the floor. She quickly picks a few objects/characters, say: this sticker of an apple, this lion puppet, and this Rapunzel book. She steers me onto her bed, climbs in next to me, hugs her pillow, and says: "Okay. Go!"

And in ten minutes I weave a quick tale about a very hungry lion who wants the last apple from the top of a tall tree, and how Rapunzel shows up in the nick of time, using her long hair to hoist herself up and fetch the apple, saving the starving lion and making a lifelong friend. The end. And then I get graded. My little listener will tap her rosebud lips, look up at the ceiling with her big blue eyes. "Good, but I think it needs a better ending. With a witch." So I tack on a new twist that just when the lion and Rapunzel thought they were home free an evil witch appears to tell them it's her apple tree and she will now be keeping them prisoner for stealing her apple. On the way deeper and deeper into the dungeon, which is full of magical creatures the witch has trapped over the years, Rapunzel uses her hair to tie up the witch. The lion frees the unicorn, pegasus, leprechaun, mermaid, and fairy that have been held prisoner. Together they lock the witch in her own jail. When they flee the witch's haunted house, on their way through the barren orchards, the apple trees bloom and fill with apples. Magic returns to the land, and the lion will never be hungry again.

"Better," my critic tells me. When I get a really good one she'll launch across the bed and hug me. "Best story ever!" she'll yell in my ear. Those are the best cuddle times.

I've been through the wringer of grad school writing workshops, so I have a thick skin. I've been an editor for 17 years. I am not thrown by criticism. And yet pleasing this little girl with my tales matters in a way that nothing else has. I spend all day writing, either on the page or making endless notes in my mind for the next time I'm in front of my computer. I eat, drink, sleep, breathe writing. But none of that has prepared me for the joy I feel at making up a story a day, every day, for my little girl. It's good exercise for my writer-mind, to have to come up with a beginning, middle, and end without any prep time. It's great to get instant feedback in that unfiltered ego-free way that only children have. I love to watch her expression as I make it up, to see which parts get her more interested and which ones get less of a reaction, so I can steer it in the direction that makes her light up the most. But best of all, it's great to see that she gets it: what I love about words and characters and settings and plot twists and humor and dialogue. It's great that she understands inherently about story arc the same way her sister gets clothes-as-art.

I'm also pretty proud of her editing and critique skills. I can tell you from years of experience that she knows what she's talking about. When she gets a little older, ready for more grown-up themes, I have no doubt that she'll be my best beta-reader. In the mean time, if any of you ever need a good, honest critique of a children's story, I've got your girl. She's the little blue-eyed pixie, hugging a pillow and waiting for me to come up with an adventure involving a potato, a dragon, and Snow White.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


This whole crazy journey I'm on started when I was about my daughter's age, and had no idea I was even on a journey. I wrote my first short story when I was 8 or 9, and never looked back. I wrote from then on, without even thinking about why. At first I just wrote stories for my sister and step-sister, made them characters in adventures, because while they were hogging the Atari controls, I had nothing better to do. They were experts at Pong and Combat, and I was figuring out the art of storytelling. It was no big deal. Except that it got into my bones somehow, the need to write, to make up stories, to move people with words. By high school I knew that I wanted to be a writer, without having any idea what that meant. Did writing even count as a job? I had plenty of naysayers to inform me that, no, it did not. Writing was a skill all adults needed. It was a fine hobby. It didn't count as a career. But one thing about me: I'm ridiculously stubborn. I mean, most of the time I'm easy-going. I don't care where we go for dinner or what movie you want to see. I'm flexible on that stuff. But when someone tells me I can't do something that I really want to do, that easy-going nature disappears. Give me something to prove or disprove, and you get a whole different girl.

So I went to college and got a degree in creative writing. I loved my program, my professors, my fellow aspiring-writer students. I loved everything except the way everyone kept saying "Yes, but what will you do for a living? A writing degree won't get you a job." So I got stubborn about that, too, and only applied for writing-related jobs. And got one. I started out as an assistant editor just after graduating college. By the time I decided to go to grad school to earn yet another writing degree I was an editor. By the time I finished my master's degree, I was a senior editor. A senior editor with an MFA in creative writing and a head full of epic dreams of publishing novels. But no idea how to make that dream come true.

I started with short stories. I wrote one after another until I felt like they weren't grappling with me for ultimate control anymore. I started sending them out, and got some award recognition, and then I started getting published. I crafted and recrafted them until I'd published almost all of them. I tried my hand at novels, fighting the unyielding beast until I'd figured out the form, the arc, the pacing, the character development, the heart. The first novel I ever dared show the world was a semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I figured I was on the right track. But as I sent that book out to literary agents, I knew something about it wasn't right yet. I started a new novel, with a better understanding of what worked and what didn't. I finished it in a few months, quickly revised it with the help of awesome beta readers, and sent it out to a handful of literary agents. And one of them loved it. A huge agent. One of the big dogs.

So here I am. We're in the revision stage now, where my agent, the amazing Harvey Klinger, sends me challenges for each section of the novel, to make it stronger, deeper, more compelling. He is helping me find the heart of this story, and he is an amazing mentor. I wake up in the middle of the night so excited to wake up and write that I can't go back to sleep. I get up each morning so thrilled with my life that it's ridiculous.

And then I get my girls up, make their breakfast and school lunches, drive them to school, volunteer in their classes, all before getting to tackle those pages that have been calling to me since the moment I woke up. And that is perfect. Because being a writer is my passion, no doubt. But being a mother is just as important. And my joy at being this close to seeing my lifelong dream come true is twice as meaningful because of my daughters. I want them to see this happen for me. I want them to remember back when I got my first story published and we celebrated with sparking cider and cookies. I want them to remember the early versions of my short stories that I read aloud as I worked out the kinks. I want them to remember a mom who had a ridiculously huge dream, the kind that is so big that it shouldn't be possible, and I want them to remember the moment when it came true. I want them to dream their own big, huge, ridiculously impossible dreams, and to know in their bones that with passion, persistence, discipline, and focus they can have it, whatever it is. I want them to be unaffected by naysayers, because they know better. I want this dream for myself, as I have always wanted it. But I want it even more for my daughters.

Monday, February 18, 2013

My Wellness Coach: Frances McDormand

So, one thing about being mid-divorce and, ahem, unemployed, is that money can be tight. Like: no we can't get a pizza tonight, but I can maybe make one with these bagels and pasta sauce tight. That's fine. I'm not a materialistic girl, and my kids aren't either. But while trying to find gainful employment, I have been on the lookout for quick and easy ways to make a buck, trying to resurrect my old freelance editing contacts, that kind of thing. When I came across an offer for a "wellness coach" through my health insurance, I jumped at it. Because it paid $75! The wellness coach would be calling me three times over the course of a couple of months, to help set some sort of health goal that I was sure I'd ignore as soon as I had my money in hand.

On our first appointment-call, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my wellness coach sounded exactly like the actress Frances McDormand a la Fargo. She was full of "you betchas" and "dontcha knows" and quirky midwest charm and she instantly made me feel at ease. So I rattled off my various health challenges (stress, divorce, lack of sleep, lack of money) and listened to her sympathize. She'd divorced when her children were young, and understood completely. Then came the coaching. "Ya know, the most important thing to remember in times of stress is to take care of yourself. Ya got kids. Ya got stress. Ya got endless demands. But if you don't take care of yourself first, you're no good to them." And the weird thing was, my Frances McDormand-sound-alike was exactly right. It was the same message I'd heard from my Reiki Master friend Heather. The same thing my doctor had said. The same thing my 8-year-old told me on occasion. But if the universe was sending me the message yet again, then maybe I still wasn't doing it.

Frances wanted me to do one thing: schedule a half-hour of "me" time every single day. She wanted me to tell my kids about it, so they'd (1) hold me accountable to myself, and (2) so they'd see me not just as mom, but also as a human being with actual human needs. She wanted me to set a reminder/alarm on my phone so I'd never forget. She wanted me to spend my half hour doing something that benefited no one but me. And with Frances' permission, I set my reminder. I had lofty notions of hiking and reading and taking yoga classes and doing things that involved not having children around, but that's just not my life. Due to their dad's travel schedule for work, I have my kids about 90% of the time. Daily alone time is a fairly distant memory. So instead, I settled for listening to half hour meditations in my room while the kids watched a half hour of TV and ate their after school snacks downstairs. A totally unproductive half hour for myself every day? Prescribed by someone my own health insurance sent to me? Such indulgence! Frances was my new favorite wellness coach, therapist, best friend, caller, and benefactor, all rolled into one.

About two weeks into it, my six year old came to me as I was working on my computer one afternoon and said, "Shouldn't you go upstairs and rest now?" Because here's the thing: not only is it a half hour of me time ensconced in my bedroom each day, it's also a half hour of kids-behaving-well-unsupervised time. It's a test for all of us. And somehow, we're passing. That's not to say that I never get a kid walking in during my half-hour meditation-time to ask me to open a stubborn package of snacks or wanting to know where her favorite headband is. I'm a single mom. That's the deal. But the fact that I can say to my girls: "Okay, I'm heading to my room for a half hour," and they give me hugs and settle down to do something quiet until I'm done? That's amazing. And the realization that it might not take them 40 years to realize they get to come first, for at least a half hour each day of their lives? That's the best part. Thank you, Frances.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Many thanks to my amazing poet friend Patricia Caspers for inviting me to share about my work in progress through the blog series The Next Big Thing. Here goes:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The current working title is "The Art of Adapting" but I'm betting it'll change.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My uncle Mike had Asperger's Syndrome, and I always knew I'd write a story about a man based on him. It's evolved into its own story, so at this point it's not my uncle's story at all, but he still gets credit for the inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

I'd like to say literature, but since much of it comes from a woman's point of view, it seems likely to get shelved under women's fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea. I have clear visions of my characters and no actors look exactly like them. But if I had to choose, maybe Juliana Margulies and Joaquin Phoenix.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Lana, recently separated from her husband and no longer the center of her teenage children's world, takes in her brilliant and eccentric brother with Asperger's Syndrome to help make ends meet.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I'm going the agency route.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft took 3-4 months. The rewrites are taking much longer!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I'd like to say it's comparable to Marisa de los Santos' books, because I adore her, but that may just be wishful thinking.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It was actually inspired by a movie I saw about a man with Asperger's Syndrome who seems to magically and inexplicably "recover" in the end, finding a way to adapt to mainstream society without any help whatsoever. As someone who grew up around Asperger's and learned to love my quirky uncle on his own terms, I wanted to portray a more realistic vision of a similarly eccentric, beautiful, strange soul who doesn't need to "recover" because there's nothing wrong with him. He just is who he is, the one constant in a family of ever-changing dynamics, and deserves to be loved and accepted as-is.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

It's my first time trying my hand at writing from multiple points of view: 4 characters in all. It's been a fun challenge.