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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bookless in Seattle

For the first time in my life, I have nothing to read. Nothing! I'm totally disoriented. I'm twitching and hallucinating and muttering to myself. I'm visiting family, 3,000 miles away from my tower of nightstand books. I came here having hastily packed, with only one half-finished novel (which I read on the plane), thinking I would just buy new books while I'm out here. Because I'm not in the Middle of Nowhere. I'm in Seattle. A reading city, bursting with incredible bookstores.

But my time during bookstore hours has been taken up with family activities over Memorial Day weekend. My time has not been my own. I did orbit Third Place Books at a farmers market on Sunday, but had to help my parents carry vegetables. We had walked to the market, and had a big dinner to cook. I cast longing looks at the bookstore and experienced chest pains as I walked away. Radishes? Who cares about radishes? I am out of reading material, people!

I could have borrowed a book from my parents, but we have different tastes in reading (Death Begins in the Colon just isn't calling out to me right now for some reason). Besides, it's a new book I'm craving. An uncreased cover. The crack of a spine as I turn to page one.

I've never been in this situation. When I pack for a trip, I'm more likely to throw in an extra book than an extra shirt. I'll wear the wrong type of footwear all week but have an ample layer of words. Even as a kid, I'd look forward to picking out my special "airplane books" so I'd never be caught without reading material. Maybe it's a habit I picked up from my grandmother, who never went anywhere without a paperback mystery in a neat paper bag.

Yet here I am. Inexplicably bookless. I'm starting to understand the appeal of a Kindle.

I awakened early today, groping for a book that was not there. I looked at the clock. Three hours till the nearest bookstore opens. Could I dash there before visiting my grandmother? Squeeze in a book run before picking up my rental car and heading over to see my mother? One thing I love about my hometown is the abundance of drive-through coffee joints. Why don't we have 24-hour drive-through bookstores? (The Kindle. I know, I know. I'll think about it).

One hour and forty-two minutes until the nearest bookstore opens. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shaking Up My Writing Life

For many years, I had no hobbies. Not a one. I pursued work, grad school, and, above all, writing, with gritty determination, leaving little time for anything else. I lived on little sleep, piled on the freelance work, and was generally unpleasant to be around. Around 30, I realized my life was way out of balance. I started carving out time for hobbies and recreation. Took up yoga. Tried knitting. (Which was hopeless -- sorry, Mom). Went back to ballet for a bit. Took up long distance bicycling with my husband and even did a couple of 200-mile charity fundraiser rides.

I've always been so stingy with my writing time, but I've come to find that devoting even two hours a week to something else, something that does not involve staring at a computer screen, is a wise investment. It gives me more stamina for sitting at a desk. I also encounter people who are not in my usual orbit. And when I leave my daily routine to become totally immersed in something else, my brain shakes loose new ideas.

A year ago, I found a new activity that made my heart soar: taiko drumming. A combination of martial arts, dance, voice, and percussion -- with a little Japanese language thrown in -- taiko is like taking five classes in one. It's also strangely addictive.

I attend the class at great inconvenience. The class meets on my husband's one late night at work. I have to arrange a complex trapeze act with a babysitter to cover the lag time, which also means added expense. I am frequently late or must miss classes due to competing demands on the home front. Yet I've kept at it, with the following thought process: "I just want to be strong enough to drum for twenty minutes straight. Then I'll be happy." Then it was: "I just want to learn the song Kokyo. Then I'll be happy." Then: "I just want to play in the winter concert. Then I'll bow out." Then: "I just want to learn this really cool, complex song, Hiryu Sandan Geishi. THEN, I swear, I'll hang up my bachi -- my drumsticks -- and retire, because this Tuesday night thing is a HUGE PAIN."

No can do. I just performed Hiryu Sandan Geishi with my class, in my second show, "Spring Thunder," and I'm still giddy over the fact that I successfully did this, despite missing some classes this winter and catching endless illnesses from my preschooler. And good news: the instructor said I can move up to a more advanced class this summer. This new schedule will solve my babysitting problems. But I'm also thrilled to move up because I watch the Styles class with awe, marveling at all they can do: the tricks and tosses with their bachi, their stamina, their energy. That little voice in me is still whispering. "I just want to take one session of the Styles class. Then I'll be happy!" Yeah, right.

Here are a few pictures from the Spring Thunder performance. (I'm on the right, front row).

I think one big reason taiko works for me is that it's an area of my life where I can see progress. If I show up, if I practice, if I commit to it, I get better. I'm sure this mentality translates to my writing too, but with drumming it's so tangible. If you miss a note, it's obvious. When you hit the drum right, it sings.

Also, I get to pretend I'm a real musician. Even better, I get to hang out with some truly amazing musicians, like the members of Odaiko New England, pictured below as they break in a brand new odaiko (drum):

If you're in the Boston area, Odaiko New England can be seen performing next at a benefit concert with two other local taiko groups on Saturday, June 4. The event, Artists for Japan, will support the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund and Japan Animal Rescue and Support. I'll be out of town, but drumming along with them in spirit! (Saturday, June 4, 2:30-5:30, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, 1555 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge).

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Monday, May 16, 2011

NESCBWI 2011: A gem of a conference!

Spring brings showers -- for me, showers of new information and new friends and contacts. It's conference season, the time of year I like to put on actual clothes (as opposed to the pajamas I work in most days) and emerge from my cave. In years past, I attended teacher's and textbook writer's conferences; now, on a hiatus from teaching, I try to attend more events for creative writers. Earlier this month I attended Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace, and this weekend I went to the NESCBWI conference for the first time.

I'm relatively new to SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and completely new to NESCBWI (the New England chapter). Why did I wait so long to join this amazing organization? I don't know. Maybe I just found the acronym intimidating, or had trouble typing and saying it. Now, after this weekend, it rolls off my tongue. I cannot say enough wonderful things about this group. It was exciting to spend the weekend in the company of 500+ attendees who are all passionate about children's fiction.

I could only attend two out of three days, due to a schedule conflict with a taiko drumming performance I was in (more on that later this week) and a desire to not completely abandon my child all weekend. Not staying on site also meant an hour's commute to Fitchburg each way. But my long hours on the road were completely worth it. Highlights included:
  • A workshop with Janet Fox on "Elusive Elision" -- deciding when to hold back and when to reveal -- a craft issue I thought about a lot during my last novel revision. Extremely useful. 
  • A workshop with Susan Raab on promotion strategies and finding your marketing voice.
  • A panel discussion with Tony Abbott, Elise Broach, and Nora Baskin on sustaining a long-term career as a children's author.
  • A sparkling discussion on multicultural fiction, with authors and illustrators of picture books, MG books, and YA books.
I also met up with four fellow Apocalypsies (2012 kidlit debut authors) for lots of shop-talk, and greatly enjoyed getting to know them in person. Email's great and all, but there's no substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. And it's always so great to meet other writers and hear about where they are on this journey.

There are lots of good people working hard to write and sell top-notch books for children. The seriousness of attendees struck me the most. Yes, we're all writing for children, and maybe (I thought, on occasion) we could lighten up at times. But I think we all have this great hunger for information on craft and promotion. When we get to a conference like this, we're greedy. We don't want to waste a minute. We want to write great books. We want to get them into the hands of readers. It's a fun job, and a serious business.

I'll be back next year at this gem of a conference, hopefully presenting with some colleagues!

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Inspiration at the Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend I attended my favorite writer's conference: Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. I've been going to this conference since its earliest days, when it was a simple one-day affair. Now it's exploded into a jam-packed two-day event that draws attendees from all over the country and attracts high-profile keynote speakers such as Ann Patchett, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Jonathan Franzen, and, this year, one of my all-time favorite authors, Ron Carlson. I love how the conference is true to its name, devoting equal attention to matters of the Muse (sessions focused on craft and inspiration) and the Marketplace (everything from acquiring an agent to promoting your published book).

The conference was more of a whirlwind for me than before as I could only attend on one day. I was a sponge during sessions, drinking in all the wisdom I could from workshop leaders and panelists, and then rather frantically trying to connect with old friends and meet people between sessions or bites of food.

Among the many highlights of the day:
  • Kidlit author Ben Winters led an energetic workshop on "Writing Funny for Young Readers." We analyzed a number of passages from successful and classic kids' books (Tom Sawyer, Anastasia Krupnik, Beezus and Ramona, among others) to see how tone, character, and conflicts can be vehicles for humor, and vice versa. We also brainstormed what's funny for kids, and how to be consistent. Some of the passages we looked at were from books I hadn't read since childhood, but instantly remembered -- and now, looking back through an analytical lens, could see why I loved them, what made them sing.The workshop was MG (middle grade) focused, and did not really get into YA (young adult) humor, so I'll puzzle over humor and the older market on my own time.
  • Acclaimed author Randy Susan Meyers  led a panel discussion with an in-house publicist and a freelance publicist to discuss how authors might leverage both to promote their books. I'm not yet sure if I'd hire an outside publicist, mainly due to cost, but I took away a number of tips for working with publicists when the time comes, and gained a new appreciation for the power of having a team of people involved in promoting your book -- and the importance of communicating well with that team. (Plus, if you have never heard Randy speak, you must drop everything and get to one of her book readings or talks ASAP. She is that rare combination of brilliant and funny. She could talk about anything -- publicity, her novel, broccoli -- and I would go hear her).
  • Ron Carlson gave an inspiring keynote speech. I had chills when he took the stage; I own every book of short stories this guy has written. (I've read one of his novels, but prefer his stories for some reason). I've been recommending his book on craft, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, for years, and it was great to hear him  give voice to some of the ideas expressed there, such as the need for the writer to "stay in the room" -- not to leave the room, desk, or scene when the going gets tough, because the best material usually arises when you stay and proceed ahead into the unknown, toward doubt.
  • Jenna Blum, Ethan Gilsdorf, and Jonathan Papernick gave a rousing "Hour of Power" talk at the end of the day: Guerilla Book Promotion. All three have engaged in innovative strategies to promote their own books. Jenna has visited countless bookclubs and chases tornadoes. Ethan scheduled his own book tour and finds unique book-related venues at which he can speak or give workshops. Jonathan (a.k.a. "Papernick the Book Peddler") hand-sells his books from a pushcart in New York City and appears at Farmers Markets (where, as he put it, he doesn't have to compete with the likes of Jonathan Franzen; he's just competing with vegetables). 
A full day, which I'm grateful I could enjoy. I'm ready to hit the desk again this week and finish Phase One of my revision. As always after the Muse, I'm in awe of how many writers come to conferences, how many of us are engaged in this zany and wonderful pursuit of putting words on a blank page, and how book culture and reading are alive and well.

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