My kid hates to read and the world isn’t ending.

My middle son hates to read. He’s 11. He likes playing guitar, listening to music, skateboarding, building stuff, and being with friends. He’s not the kind of kid who sits quietly for extending periods of time. He gets decent grades and we never get notes home from teachers with any kind of warnings. He’s a caring kid who will jump out of a plane for you, or even just for fun, and when his younger brother’s hamster died he showed the kind of deep compassion every parent hopes to see in their kids.

He’s a good kid.

But he hates to read. I know! My child! You probably haven’t been inside my house, but there are more books here than spiderwebs and that’s saying something. This child has been surrounding by books since his time in the womb. He sees his parents and two brothers read often. We talk about books (and current events) at the dinner table. I get his opinion on covers we’re considering for books at Nomad, since he’s smack in our usual audience age group. This kid can’t bounce a basketball in the kitchen without a stack of books falling over, and yet…he hates to read. He tells me every night when I remind him it’s time for screens off and books open.

This year, it’s the worse it’s been. His teacher, like all teachers, is a fan of reading. She has her students set a goal of reading 40 books during the school year. When my older son had this teacher two years ago, he blew the goal out of the water without trying. I don’t think he even recorded half the books he read, just enough to get the grade. Luca is a different story. Luca not only hates to read, he’s a slow reader. He agonizes over this goal. Last week, the school hit the halfway through mark and students were required to take stock of their progress toward their reading goals: Luca has read eight books.

My poor kid. I hate that he hates books more than ever now. I don’t see a way back from this. Maybe, I hope, he’ll discover books that he can’t help but read in great big gulps, all day spent sprawled on the couch with a book to his face. But honestly, if that never happens, I don’t really care. He’s got great stuff in his life. The things he loves don’t have to be the things I love. We have plenty of other stuff to talk about.

Like teaching practices and how they can both help and harm a student’s progress.

I am tempted to write his teacher an email letting her know that my son won’t be reaching his reading goal this year and that’s just fine. I’d like to point out to her the damage this unobtainable reading goal has done to his relationship with books. I am a pro-teacher kind of person. I am almost always on the teacher’s side, because they’re the ones who’ve studied how kids learn, right? But this… My husband and I have already told our son that we don’t care if he doesn’t reach the goal, we don’t care if he fails reading because he didn’t read enough books. I’m thinking she needs to know, too.

I suppose there’s a request for advice in here. Do I tell this teacher we’re adjusting his goal to a more reasonable number? That he will read 20 minutes a night and if that means he finishes four more books by June, so be it? Or do I admit to my kid that sometimes teachers don’t know best and that it’s okay to be pleased by progress she doesn’t appreciate? Maybe there’s a valuable lesson in that very approach.

I think I need to read on it.

How to blame suckyness on others

 

Does reading bad writing make you a bad writer?

I remember an advisor from grad school wrinkling her nose and looking dismissive when asked this question. “How could it?” she said. “If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer. Reading bad writing can’t make you a bad writer, unless you were a bad writer to start with.” Or something like that.

And for years I adopted this as one of my (many) mantras. A good writer writes good stuff! Reading bad writing don’t make writers bad!

Apparently, I’m a highly suggestible person, because if I’m reading a bad book (and I read plenty of bad books. I’m a book reviewer. There are a lot of bad books out there.) then I definitely tap out some pretty lame paragraphs of my own when that bad writing is freshest in my mind. I write awful, terrible sentences until I digest the antidote: a really good book.

Like most creative weirdnesses, I don’t know why this is so. My job is not to question. My job is to make use of insight earned through years of trial and error and error and error and to change my mantra. Good reading breeds good writing.

So, how do I handle this as a book reviewer who reads bad books as part of her bid for supplemental income? I read more, and I read faster, and I make sure to read more amazing books than not amazing books. And that’s actually really easy. Except, of course, when I manage to rent the entire last season of Downton Abbey and have to, well, turn my attention away from the written word in favor of the digitized spoken word.

But actually, maybe this counts. There are movies that stand out as having taught me how to be a better writer: Four Weddings and a Funeral (thanks to Doug Glover at VCFA); 500 Days of Summer; Sliding Doors; even the TV series New Girl with it’s phenomenal bar scene dialogue. And podcasts are great, too. Stories are stories, and if you work at it you can twist the spoken word around in a certain way so it looks like the written word and then you can figure out how it clicks together to make something pretty great.

So don’t read too much bad writing. There’s a lot of it out there to avoid, but luckily, there’s a lot of good writing, too. It’s like light matter and dark matter–they can’t exist without each other.

(Full disclosure: I’m not a scientists. I have no idea the roles of light and dark matter or their rules for existence. The simile might not work at all. Sorry.)

 

 

In the beginning, there was market research…

In the beginning, there was market research…

We’re thinking hard about starting a new series at Nomad Press. We’re pondering, we’re testing the water, we’re gathering evidence of future success or failure. We’re nervous. We’re hesitant. Until we’re not, and then we’re boisterous and foolhardy. Of course we can launch a new series in the space of six months! Of course everyone will love it! Of course it will makes lots of money! Of course it will get kids to read more!

But who knows? Publishing a book is jumping off a roof, but starting a new series is jumping off a cliff into the stormy ocean below. Where the sharks are swimming. In -18 degree weather. It’s scary and not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

And it’s weird to try and guess what a series of books should look like before they even exist. It’s like inviting ten strangers to dinner and trying to plan a menu that will please everyone without knowing who’s a vegetarian, who’s gluten free, and who hates Brussels sprouts (these people who hate Brussels sprouts, they sound like a myth, but they do exist; I gave birth to some of them). It’s very, very hard. Add to that already high level of difficulty a team of seven people, each of whom has strong, very different opinions. Piece of cake… right?

But that’s also part of why we do it. Hard stuff is fun.

And I have high hopes that the finished product, the first book in the series, will be a gorgeous book that kids will flock to. It will be one of those books that kids will turn the last page of and look up and ask, “Is there more?”

Part of why I have this job is because I loved to read as a kid and those books that left me physically craving more (A Wrinkle in Time, Night Swimmers, The Children of Green Knowe) taught me lessons I didn’t know I needed that have resonated beyond fifth grade into the rest of my life. Lessons that include how powerful a story can be, the reasons we have relationships, and the often untapped potential of dead things.

And it feels amazing to be a part of the mechanism that might, if we’re lucky, create a new book that teaches these lessons to some kid that’s out there now, probably playing a video game and snacking on pretzels.

So, like I said, piece of cake.

Wish us luck.

Granny! Except, maybe not.

I adore Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, and Sarah’s mother, Barb, who keeps me company on the frigid playground while we wait for the school buses to arrive. And I can’t wait to be an old woman with long, grey, wild hair and strong opinions. I’ve never used any kind of age-hiding beauty treatment – mainly because I don’t know how. But all of this is to say, I think old women rock.

So it worries me that I rejected an illustrator’s rendition of an archeologist because…she was too old. She looked like a grandmother. And without thinking too much about it, I fired off an email requesting someone different. Someone younger. Someone that would appeal to the 12- to 15-year-olds that we’re hoping will read this book.

Four days later, I’m still worried.

It’s too late. The illustrator is off and running, pages and pages of comic book style drawings are coming my way via dropbox. And they’re fantastic. They’re funny, and engaging, and the characters are multicultural and cute. And the archeologist, the adult, isn’t too adult. She’s youngish with red hair. Not a grandmotherly wisp around her.

I am one of those people who feel righteously appalled when I hear about an older woman who’s been fired, asked to step down, called out for her age, made fun of, dismissed, excused, or belittled. I love older women. I think they’re smarter than me and have better ideas. I even think they’re cool. And I look forward to being one, if I’m lucky. So why did I reject the grandmotherly archeologist? Me, who has been taught very specific lessons about fairness by my three young sons (because kids are the experts in fair)?

Should I let it go?

Like I said, it’s too late for this particular Granny. She’s gone, her brief life as a sketch over. The redhead who took her place is vibrant and fun and readers will want to follow her all over the world.

But I think it’s important to keep the grannies in mind. To remember that not only do we have an obligation to learn from our elders, but also to teach the younger generations of their enduring importance. Maybe the next book will have a granny.

Editor? Editor!

Yesterday I sent out a list of questions to our current authors in hopes that they’ll take a few minutes out of their sure-to-be-busy last week of the year and answer in witty, engaging, informative ways. I know it’s a lot to ask. And I struggle with this. Where does the job of an author end? Should I, as an editor, be asking this stuff of my authors? Shouldn’t I leave them alone to toil away on their next projects?

I think that, back in the halcyon days of publishing, the writer’s job used to end with final edits. You were sent a galley, you made the corrections or argued about them, and you were done. Maybe you’d venture out to do a book tour. Maybe you’d sign a few copies when you dropped by the local bookstore. But mostly you were at work on your next book and, beyond checking clips of reviews sent by your agent, when you were done with a book you were done.

Now, though, more is required of authors. And more is required of editors. As an editor, I might spend one day a week actually, you know, editing. The other days I spend copywriting, marketing, giving design input, trying really, really hard to think of the Next Huge Thing, emailing follow-up, ever-more-strident emails about missed deadlines, contacting experts in the field and begging them for their expert opinions on our books, blogging, and wading through social media accounts. Editing is my favorite thing about my job and it’s also the thing I do the least.

But it’s still a great job.

I’m thinking about all of this because of this NPR story that I listened to while waiting for my windshield to deice enough for me to drive off. Editing is one of those jobs that is hard to explain. I used to think, back when I was *merely* a writer, that editors functioned as glorified spell checkers. They fixed your grammar. But then I became an editor (luckily my boss was willing to take a chance on someone with this level of misconception) and discovered that editing is more about being able to see the details of a book and the larger picture at the same time. It’s like we wear a special kind of glasses.

We’re on the cusp of a new year, and with this new year I’m starting a new blog. I mean, this one has been around for a while, but now it’s got a shiny new package,. It’s a blog about editing, and writing, and my kids, and my cats. And about books, because books are my favorite.

Welcome. What are you reading today?

The Day After the Day After Christmas

The year is dwindling.

These days are my favorite days, and they’re also the most depressive. I don’t know about you, but every day or so, usually when I’m driving or folding laundry, I glance back on the divided hours of the past year and discover a pie chart I don’t much admire. Quite a large slice is devoted to Making Meals No One Ate, another big one contains Explaining the Thought Process Behind My Actions, and the third major player happens to be Driving Children To Activities They Used To Be Excited About. The smallest piece of pie is Writing a Novel, and the second to smallest is Thinking Unique Thoughts, and the third smallest is Reflecting in Healthy Ways.

You can see why this might be depressing.

What makes it worse is the ratio of treats to real food currently residing in our house.

And of course! This is all fixable! With relative ease! I could, for example, go for a walk and I’d feel about a thousand percent better. I could play a card game with my youngest son and therefore avoid the suspicion that I’ve neglected him far more than parenting articles suggest is necessary. I could kiss my husband and tell him I love him. All these things would make me feel better.

But I’m not sure the feeling better feel would last longer than three in the afternoon.

What I really need is a systemic sea change. A sustainable habit of living healthfully. A way of preventing quite so many interruptions.

Ah. That might fix everything. Fewer interruptions.

But I have three children. And a husband who enjoys my company. Is asking for fewer interruptions truly an option?

Oh, I have to go. The seven-year-old just returned and needs me to make him a Meal He Won’t Eat.

 

How To Make the Most of Your Writing Retreat in Maine

How To Make the Most of Your Writing Retreat in Maine

We are nearing the end. Soon we will have to bid farewell to wide plank floorboards, the leaky kitchen sink, the view of lounge chairs in the sun (on which we do not sit becuase we are writers writing), the quiet, the peace, the stillness.

But I am not leaving empty handed. And while it’s tempting to slip some of the amazing artwork on these walls into my purse, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about knowledge. Because while this week was very productive, next time we do this I’m going to be even better prepared. Here’s my advice to myself. Perhaps it’s useful to you, too.

  1. If you come to this particular house, don’t bring any books. There are plenty. Also, you are here to write, not to read. Put down that book and get back to work.
  2. Running every day and yoga on the lawn is not a waste of an hour because it will make you more efficient during writing time.
  3. Don’t be the kind of person who checks facebook and twitter all the time. Once in a while is okay. Also, people can tell when you’re on those sites and they will wonder why you are not working. Let this be your prophylactic.
  4. Updating a blog totally counts as writing time.
  5. Checking your stats does not.
  6. Find your corner early. Mine is in the living room crouched over a wooden bench on which my computer rests. Sometimes I sit in the green leather chair. Sometimes I sit on the floor. Wherever you work best, make it yours. Growl at anyone who tries to make you move. But if you go on a retreat with the right person (see #9), you won’t have to worry about squatters.
  7. Find your window early. Because you have to look up sometimes, and it’s best to look at something lovely but not so lovely that you want to gaze endlessly.
  8. Don’t go hungry but don’t eat more than usual. This is not a vacation. This is working. Would you eat Pop Tarts at the office? Of course not. Don’t eat them on your writing retreat. (Don’t eat them ever–they’re not good for you.)
  9. People who you can be alone with are rare and valuable. Find some and hang on to them.
  10. Grant yourself an evening out. Just one. Call it research.
  11. Don’t be bothered by anything. It takes work to get to Maine. It’s hard to leave behind your job and family. Make those favors and logistics worth it. Don’t be bothered by stupid stuff like low water pressure. This house has great water pressure, by the way. But if the water pressure were low, it would still be the perfect place to write.
  12. Bring painkillers, because writing for ten hours a day hurts.
  13. Miss your people back home. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around often, unless you’re a certain type of person, which I am not. Miss them and delight in them when you return.
  14. Make plans for next year. Retreats are definitely an annual kind of thing.

We have one more night here, and we are going out to dinner soon (see #10) to celebrate all of our productivity. Goodbye house. Goodbye time. Goodbye bowls of mush.