The End

Finishing a project is a sweet-bitter thing. Yes, the relief is great. But also–you miss it.

I miss reading Shakespeare. Of course, I can still read him, I know that, but there’s less of a hard motivation. It’s like clicking well with one person at a party and then wandering off to talk to other people. You like talking to other people, but you miss that one very clicky person.

(Full disclosure: I have never really had this experience at any party, because I hate crowds and if I find a person I can talk to I usually stick to that person long past the awkward stage and it’s all very weird and uncomfortable.)

So yes, I’m thrilled to be reading the books (The Girl in the Red Coat, The Turner House) that have languished on my bedside bookshelf for months, but also, I miss him.

And I felt a bit chokey when I deleted about 20 tabs from my browser, all related to my book. Poof. And immediately I worried that I’d never be able to find that page, ever again. And someday I might need it.

And–I no longer have the perfect excuse for spending seven hours every Sunday planted at my kitchen table, writing. And I have to ask myself: Why do I need an excuse to spend seven hours planted at my kitchen table writing? Why is that perfectly okay to do when I’m getting paid for it, but not when the writing project is a seed potato that might never grow into a veggie-bearing plant?

This question has haunted me since 2002. I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer.

It’s school vacation week, so last week was the perfect time to finish a big project. I’m home today and tomorrow with the boys and we are going to swim, eat in parks, go to movies, sweep the floors, and do a whole bunch of laundry. And I will do it all without page counts running teasingly through my mind. I will be as available as I ever am for their questions and knock-knock jokes. I will ask the oldest what’s going on in his endless civilization building game and actually listen to the answer. Well, mostly.

But I’ll still be looking for evidence of Shakespeare everywhere on our local travels, because what I’ve learned from writing this book is that we are collectively haunted, in a good way, by a brilliant mind that just can’t quit.

And maybe I’ll sneak in an hour or two to work on my potato.

Shakespeare’s Skull: A Historical Whodunit

I might have mentioned, I’m writing a book on Shakespeare and his plays and how they influence today’s world.

Weirdly enough, it’s called Shakespeare: Investigate the Bard’s Influence on Today’s World. 

This is the third (published) book I’ve written, and it’s my favorite. My research process is reading great books and watching great movies, so despite being haunted by a perpetual feeling of inadequacy (it is Shakespeare, after all) I’m having a great time.

And much of the world is interested in Shakespeare right now, because he died just about 400 years ago and that is a good enough reason for a party.

One way archeologists like to party is by scanning Shakespeare’s grave with radar imaging. It’s how they’re getting around the curse:

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 

These words, chiseled into Shakespeare’s gravestone, order the the world to leave him be. And the world, well, most of it, has complied.

Except…

Kevin Colls and his team of scientists from the Center of Archeology at Staffordshire University discovered that Shakespeare’s grave has been disturbed since he was buried there, and that Shakespeare’s skull is missing.

I know! I’m excited too! I wrote a blog post for Nomad Press about what they discovered (or, rather, didn’t discover).

I want to add here that I know, I know, there’s so much heartbreaking stuff happening this week, but also, lots of people are talking about Shakespeare, and that’s a great thing. The work I do doesn’t accomplish anything in terms of beating terrorism, here or abroad, but I do believe in the balance of good and evil in the universe and Shakespeare is firmly on the side of the good, and I’m happy to be a (tiny) part of his conversation.

Rock on, Shakespeare. Skull or no skull.

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?