Sunday, May 22, 2011

Time to Knock Off the Pity Party

I've been hosting a gala pity party for myself over the last week or so. Among other things, I've been dealing with congested, runny-nosed children sleeping fitfully and acting fitfully; an aggravated sciatic nerve that triggers sharp pains down my leg and has brought all spring cleaning and other household projects to a screeching halt; and fourteen manuscript queries submitted without a glimmer of interest from anyone. Granted, I've received positive feedback from the folks who took the time to respond beyond a form letter (if they responded at all):

“Great title.”
“Fast pace.”
“Creepy atmosphere.”
“Strong writing.”
“Well-thought-out story.”

But the letters all end the same way. “Unfortunately, the story just didn't grab me the way I wanted it to.”

Which makes me want to reach out and grab them and demand, “But what does that MEAN?” How do you fix a story that doesn't grab someone? Are the characters at fault? Is there too much description? Not enough action? I set up teenage angst, introduce ghosts, and reveal a murder within the first twenty pages. What doesn't grab?

“Couldn't you go back to some of these folks and ask them for more specific details?” a friend asked. I smiled at the sweetness of her suggestion. Then I explained that most agents state in their submission guidelines that they’re too busy to respond to everyone, and a non-response should be interpreted as non-interest, so I didn't think any of them would take kindly to providing additional feedback on a manuscript they didn't want in the first place. I don't want to get blackballed from the literary community before I've even entered it. And so I must struggle with this question alone.

And with back pain.

And frequently interrupted sleep cycles courtesy of little congested noses.

Thus my pity party.

But, as all parties must come to an end, so shall mine. I attended a thesis reading last night spotlighting all of the new graduates from my MFA program. I watched a dear friend and amazing writer win the best thesis award while combating her intense fear of reading in public. My heart swelled for her. She wrote a magical thesis and deserved the honor without question. And she made it through without a stumble.

I also spoke with my advisor and mentor about my submission dilemma. “At what point do I need to step back and reevaluate the manuscript?” I asked her. I hoped against hope she'd tell me I just hadn't submitted to the right person yet.

“I think you've reached that point,” she said. My heart sank to the floor. Then she asked, “Would you like me to read it for you?”

And suddenly, a light at the end of the tunnel. Others have read the manuscript for me – other writers like me, who are struggling to pave their own paths into the world of publishing. But here was an actual published author – not to mention incredible woman and dear friend – offering to take time out of her summer break to read my manuscript and make suggestions.

What a gift! Naturally I'm taking her up on the offer.

The colds are clearing up. I'm icing and stretching my back regularly. And I'm using this past “down” week to remind myself that, in the big scheme of things, these problems are minuscule and temporary, and if they are my biggest problems, I am truly blessed.

And I am.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Learning to Fly: The joys of air travel with small children

With the summer travel season approaching, and our plans materializing for a marathon road-trip to Florida to visit my in-laws, I thought I’d share a piece I wrote for my Travel Writing class last year about the joys of air travel with small children. Enjoy!

9:30 AM
Takeoff in 9 hours and 27 minutes
On my bureau sit two piles of clothes: one for my 6-year-old daughter Olivia consisting of mostly pink and blue, and the other for 2-year-old Josh consisting of twice as many clothes as his sister because he tends to soil himself multiple times per day on vacation. Dave’s clothes sit in a tidy pile on the floor, ready to be transferred to a suitcase at a moment’s notice. My clothes are all still in the closet because I spent all morning getting the kids’ stuff together.

We’re determined not to check bags as a protest to the extra fees. So we need to fit six days’ worth of clothing and supplies into carry-ons. Not a problem if we just packed clothes and toiletries; but we also need favorite stuffed animals, blankets, storybooks, a laptop, two ipods loaded with movies and lullabies, coloring books and crayons – all essentials if we want happy children.

And trust me, we want happy children.

Takeoff in 6 hours, 57 minutes
Spent the last two hours gathering all the kids’ miscellaneous stuff, during which time Olivia switched outfits approximately twelve times and changed her mind about her storybook selections at least four times. Thankfully Josh isn’t saying much beyond “milk” and “oh no,” so he can’t share his opinions. I cross-check all Josh’s toiletries with my list from our last trip when I had to buy emergency diaper rash cream at the hotel for $15.95. I have dye-free fragrance-free soap for his sensitive skin, petroleum jelly for his sensitive behind, and extra pacifiers for our fellow travelers when things don’t go his way.

Dave enters the room briefly, stacks his clothes into a bag, throws in his deodorant and toothbrush, and announces he's finished packing. He asks what’s taking me so long.

My clothes are still in the closet.

3:30 PM
Takeoff in 3 hours, 27 minutes
Packed. My dad should arrive in 33 minutes. We don’t want to pay for parking, either.

4:50 PM
Takeoff in 2 hours, 7 minutes
We tumble out of the car at Departures. As my dad pulls away, we assess our pile: two pullmans, one shoulder suitcase, one tote bag, one diaper bag, Olivia’s Dora the Explorer backpack, a stroller and a car seat. After a bit of whining, Olivia consents to carry her Dora backpack. We consider strapping some bags onto Josh, but decide it’s easier to have him sit in the stroller than wander the airport like a pinball. So we stuff the diaper bag under his seat, hang as many bags on ourselves as we can, and pull the rest. For the record, pushing a stroller through an airport with one hand is akin to trying to steer a cat. But twice as dangerous.

5:17 PM
Takeoff in 1 hour, 40 minutes
The kind security agent tells us to take our time and not let anyone rush us. I wish he would pass this message on to the guy behind us, who rolls his eyes as we unload our shoes, jackets, bags and children at the checkpoint. Our stuff stretches the entire length of the conveyor. We stand shoeless on the other side waiting for our belongings. The guy behind us gives us the stink eye as the conveyor stops. Two security personnel study the screen. They call for backup.

I know I didn’t pack anything illegal. I triple-checked the TSA website. I even remembered to pull out both quart-size zip-top bags of toiletries.

More security personnel show up. An older mustached gentleman in a snazzy blue uniform takes something from one of the bags. He approaches us with a smirk.

He is holding Josh’s blue sippy cup. “We’re going to have to test this, ma’am.”   

5:40 PM
Takeoff in 1 hour, 17 minutes
Dave and I drop our bags and collapse into seats at the gate. We’re too exhausted to stop the children from spreading their chicken nuggets on the floor in front of the picture window like a picnic. Josh regularly stands to look out, leaving perfect, greasy handprints on the window. I’m sure the window washers will appreciate having something tangible to wipe away in the morning. 

6:30 PM
akeoff in 27 minutes
They announce boarding for our flight. They start with group one. We are group five. Olivia asks approximately twenty-seven times when it will be our turn.
When they finally announce us, Dave and I hoist our bags. It takes a certain level of skill to collapse a stroller while holding a diaper bag, a thirty-pound tote bag and a squirming 2-year-old who would sprint given the opportunity. But at least we didn’t have to check anything. Take that, airline industry!

6:57 PM
The kids are strapped in. We are seated in pairs across the aisle from each other, Dave with Olivia and me with Josh. Two lucky souls separate us. As we taxi, Josh begins looking for Daddy.

7:16 PM
Josh continues his search for Daddy, escalating to a screaming fit while Dave and Olivia calmly watch a movie on their iPod across the aisle. Josh has no interest in his pacifier, his stuffed bear, his fuzzy blanket, the in-flight magazine, or the window. I am out of ideas.

7:20 PM
The flight attendant passes out pretzels. Salvation! Josh loves pretzels. He quietly munches for about ten minutes while I try to pull up anything of interest to a 2-year-old on my obsolete laptop.

7:30 PM
More screaming, now accompanied by seat kicking. The woman in front of Josh drops her wine bottle. It rolls under our seats. I hand it back to her. “You may need this,” I say.

The gentleman next to me put in his ear buds a half hour ago. I’ve noticed him raise the volume on his iPod several times.

I make a mental note never to fly at bedtime again.

9:20 PM 
Josh finally cries himself to sleep.

9:30 PM
We land. I wonder if they’ll let us leave Josh until morning. It seems a shame to wake him.

9:40 PM
I drag Olivia to the bathroom despite her protests and force her to sit on the toilet, explaining that the hour-long ride to Nana and PopPop’s is too long to hold the five cups of apple juice the attendant gave her on the flight. She pees while still insisting she doesn’t have to go.

9:55 PM
We step off the tram. Olivia runs into her grandmother’s arms. Josh struggles to get out of his stroller for a hug. I wonder where these happy children were fifteen minutes ago.

10:10 PM
Bags loaded, car seat installed, children strapped in, I sink into the seat of my in-law’s minivan and say a silent prayer that the vacation will be more relaxing than the journey.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day

In addition to the many writing blogs I follow, I check in regularly with several motherhood blogs. I try not to do this too frequently because, though they can be uplifting, I find they often tend to foster deep feelings of inadequacy. If you’ve read some, you’ll know what I’m talking about: glowing posts about amazing holiday craft projects, details of outings to educational locales, photos of family bike treks through the national parks of America.

I love my children, and as an at-home mom I have oodles of time to dedicate to them. But where others seem to pack their days with activities straight off the pages of Family Fun magazine, my days tend to be loaded with things like grocery shopping, scrubbing toilets and doing endless loads of laundry thanks to the repeated failed attempts at potty training my three-year-old. (Which, by the way, I have not managed to tackle with the loads of positive energy advised by the complimentary potty-training DVD I received in a package of disposable training pants.)

Am I a bad mother because I don't scrapbook or take the kids to the museum regularly? Am I failing at my job because I snap at my kid when I have to change his wet bedding for the second time that day? Am I scarring my daughter because I don't sit with her at the table to color with her, but instead glance over periodically as I dry the dishes or make dinner?

I hope not. Because when a morning like yesterday comes along, with two rosy-cheeked little kids crawling into my bed with gifts, cards, hugs, and giggles, it reminds me of what really matters, and that there's nothing I'd rather be doing, even with all the daily trials and challenges.

I’m not alone, as a friend reminded me today. She passed on this link to a 2005 article from Newsweek written by Anna Quindlen about the overly high bar set for mothers today, and how we should all keep in perspective what is truly important. Cheers, Anna!

How does this relate to writing? Because writing is one of the activities that “steals” time from my kids. In the afternoons, from lunchtime until about four in the afternoon, when I could be crafting castles out of popsicle sticks with my daughter or drilling my son on alphabet flashcards, I write. I put my son for a nap and instruct my daughter to find some way to amuse herself and stay out of my hair. Mean mommy? Maybe. But, honestly, like Anna Quindlen, I can remember only rare occasions when my mom sat down to play with us, and those occasions usually happened over a board game after homework and dinner. In the afternoons, we were on our own – outside, if the weather at all permitted.

So no, not a mean mommy. In fact, in many ways, a better mommy, because I could never be a happy mommy if I felt I was sacrificing my dreams.

Luckily, my daughter understands. Many days she spends her quiet time making up stories, too.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the Hunt

I have written my first novel.

I have a friend who tells me I should revel in this fact, soak it in, glow a happy glow. After all, as someone who shares a home with a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old, I’m lucky most days just to finish a sentence, let alone a novel.

And yet I have this pesky dream that’s been nagging at me for, oh, a few decades now. I want to be a published children's author. Preferably a world-famous, award-winning, beloved-by-children-everywhere author. But for the moment I’d settle for the simple publishing contract.

“But, you’ve written a book,” my friend says to me. “That’s the hard part. That’s the part so many people talk about doing but never do. And you’ve DONE it. That’s a big deal!”

While I appreciate his enthusiasm, I can’t resist pointing out one simple fact: that until I put my work out into the world where people can read it, it’s simply a really huge Word file on my computer.

So why not put it out there? Why not self-publish, or e-publish?

I’m going to defer this question to Amanda Hocking, the teen fantasy e-publishing sensation who has gotten a good deal of press lately for the large sums of cash she has raked in by self-publishing her own e-books. To paraphrase her blog entry from March 3rd (which I highly recommend you read to get a good, solid handle on this topic), the marketing and promotion of her work takes so much time that she has little left for anything else. Including writing.

Remember those two young people I mentioned who live with me? They’d like to get at least some of my attention. And that husband guy – him, too. So self-publishing isn’t a route I choose to take, for my own sanity and the avoidance of a mutiny when no one has eaten for a week because the groceries really don’t magically restock themselves.

Thus I’ve begun the process of seeking an agent or an editor (preferably both) for my first novel: a young-adult supernatural mystery about a fourteen-year-old boy haunted by the recent death of his brother, and by ghosts long dead from his town who have a dark mystery to reveal – and whose secret history closely intertwines with his own present life.

I’ve been honing this novel for a little over five years. Granted, I didn’t write non-stop for five years. I took large chunks of time off for things like moving houses, birthing babies, earning a master's (still in process) and starting a travel business (which I have since left – what was I thinking?). I was told once by a fellow writer that the first book is the most difficult. I guess he was right, since I finished a draft for my second book in only 3 ½ months – younger audience, shorter book, and only a first draft, but still very promising.

So I’m on the hunt. Eleven queries sent so far. I’ll use this blog to keep you all posted on my progress, as well as to toss out other tales of life in general. I hope you’ll enjoy!