Because I need to smile today. And so do you.

There are two things in this that make me ridiculously happy: Gilbert & Sullivan and the Muppets. Specifically, Sam the Eagle.

I cried when I dropped my kids off today (see yesterday’s post), and maybe you did too. But I will be smiling when they come home from school. Thank you, Jim Henson. Thank you Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan. I shall ignore your famous feud for the moment, and simply focus on this little song, with its brokenhearted and lovelorn and poetic and possibly-suicidal birds, that I sang to my children when they were babies, and that they now blame for their collectively odd sense of humor.

There now. Are you smiling? I am too. And I love you.

Each wild and precious life.

I went to church today and cried. This is nothing new. I am, as a general rule, a complete and total crybaby – always have been – and I often cry at church. And this last weekend? Well, I’ve been crying a lot.

Because the rest of my family had stuff going on today, it was only my son and I going to church. And because I wasn’t sure if the school shooting on Friday would get a mention during Mass, I sat Leo down and explained what happened. His sisters already knew, but I resisted telling my son. His over-fascination (starting at around age nine months) with guns. His rough play. His little-boy-bravado masking some very real fears. I don’t know. I hadn’t worked out exactly how to handle it.

So I told him that a bad man had done these bad things.

I told him that little children had died.

But I also told him that there were ladies at the school – the principal, the teachers, brave brave ladies, who had laid down their lives to save children. How they hid their children in closets and cupboards and put their bodies in between the bullets and their beloved students, and saved who they could.

I said, “Those women died as heroes, but they did what any teacher would do. Your teacher, your principal, your aides and secretaries and janitors and substitutes – they will do anything to keep you safe. So will your dad and I. You and your sisters and your classmates and your friends, you are all precious to us. I am telling you this not because I want you to feel afraid. I’m telling you this because, just like those children, you are so loved.” And then I hugged him.

Tragedies like the one in Connecticut are emotionally complex for parents. We cycle through garish and overwrought emotions – each one tearing into us like a speeding truck with its high-beams on. We are frozen; we are blinded; we are hit. We imagine those little children in the path of a madman’s bullets, and we see the faces of our own children. We hear them scream. We watch them die. Our imaginations are merciless and cruel. And, over and over again, we grieve with the families whose lives are shattered as we clutch our own offspring to our chests and feel waves of love, then terror, then relief, then guilt.

And anger.

And sorrow.

And numbness.

(and oh! those hands! and oh! those faces! and oh! those poor parents! and those children, those little, little children!)

I do not know what my children feel. They took it in and didn’t say much. I do know that my son, who usually is a right pain in my behind at church listened intently during the homily. (He was still a pain in the other sections of the Mass. He still is, in the end, his very Self.) It’s the third week of Advent – season of Light, season of Hope, season of the promise of peace. During Advent we are reminded that a single candle can illuminate the darkness, and that Heaven is not an abstraction, belonging only to the dead. Heaven is here. It grows inside us, waiting to be born. It is ruddy and squalling and precious and alive.

This is what they said at church, and afterward, Leo had questions.

“What did they mean that Heaven and Hell were right now?”

“Well,” I said, “What do you think it meant?”

That, ladies and gentlemen, was answering a question with a question. It’s a jerk move, and Leo wasn’t having it.

“So,” he said, “if I don’t feel love, like right now, am I in Hell?”

“No, sweetheart. You have never known a time when you weren’t surrounded with love. You have always been with love, but you don’t notice it because it just seems like the regular world. What they meant is that Heaven is love, and Heaven is connection, and Hell is hatred and disconnection and loneliness and despair. That’s what they meant.”

Leo thought about this. We were in the car, driving from Minneapolis and Saint Paul. It’s strange weather for December – all fog and low clouds and odd warming/icing patterns that are part of this larger weather weirding due to climate change. I don’t approve of it. Particularly now, when our feelings are complicated and muddled and foggy. I miss the stark brightness of sun-on-snow, and the searing cold of winter.

Finally, “So the people? Where the shooting was? Are they in Hell?”

He heaved the question over the seats of the car. It landed on my lap like a stone.

“Well,” I said. “Yes and no.”

I brought my hand to my mouth and felt my breath on my fingers. Out, warm. In, cold. I listened to the buzz of the wheels on the road, the rhythmic swish of the wipers. I wished we were on a couch, that he was on my lap, that he was looking at my face and not the back of my head, the occasional flick of my eyes in the rear-view mirror. I sighed.

“Here’s the thing, buddy,” I said. “Evil exists. Bad things exist. God gave us free will, do you know what that means?”

“It’s choosing,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “We are free to choose. And we can make good choices and bad choices. We can do good things or evil things. But the thing is? When terrible things happen, it doesn’t mean that good things won’t happen as a result. When there are terrible natural disasters, people help each other. They rebuild. They become closer to their neighbors and discover friends that they didn’t know they had. Old arguments stop being important, and people become more connected. And that’s Heaven – or a little bit of it anyway. That bad man, I don’t know why he did what he did, but my guess is that he wanted people to hurt. He wanted them to feel pain and despair. He wanted them to be in Hell. But the thing is? People have a tendency to come together. When bad things happen, they go out of their way to love each other. And love increases. It multiplies. There is massive amounts of love welling up in every single person that you see. It’s pouring out of their eyes and leaking from their hands. They’re leaving trails of it on the ground. They don’t know what to do with all that love. So they are hugging their kids and checking on their neighbors and sending all of the prayers and energies and extra love that they have to the people who are hurting. And they’re doing what they can to make our world safer and more just. And that’s not Hell at all. That’s Heaven. Or a little bit of it. And so that bad man? He was wrong. He was so so wrong.”

Leo thought about this.

“So you’re saying God did it on purpose? Gave free will so there would be more Heaven just lying around?”

“I don’t know, honey. But that’s a good guess.”

“So, God is tricky. He is full of tricks. Just like me.”

“That’s right, buddy,” I said. I tried to keep my voice even. I failed. “Exactly like you.”

The rest of the drive was silent, except for the wheels and the pavement and the whirr of the defroster. The sound of my son breathing. The beating of his heart. His maddening, fascinating, complicated Self. Wild, precious, and alive.

A thousand blessings upon all of you, dear readers. May your love shine in this time of darkness, and may your aching hearts be eased. Heaven is here and Hell is here, which means that we all have work to do. May we all have the courage to do it.

 

In Which I Attempt At Wisdom (and largely fail)

I believe I mentioned before that I have, for the last six weeks, returned to the teaching of adults, through a literary arts organization called The Loft Literary Center. It’s a great organization – one that has been incredibly supportive of my work over the years – and I love being a part of it.

It’s been a while since I last taught grownups. Normally I teach children. I get kids; I get how they think; I get their humor. Hell, in my soul, I think I secretly am a ten-year-old boy. Named Harold. I don’t have to think a lot about reaching my audience, because I am my audience. So, I approached my teaching of grownups with some amount of trepidation. Also, I spent the summer in a rather dark place when it came to my work and general self-efficacy, so I was rather skeptical as to what I actually had to offer these grownups who may or may not show up for my class.

(Or who may, in a fit of annoyance, leave my class in a huff. Or attack me with spit balls and paper airplanes.)

And I was surprised – no shocked – to see that my students actually enjoyed my class. Called it useful. (I have never been called useful before.) Called it illuminating. (How can I illuminate when I am standing in the dark?) Anyway, it was good for my ragged spirit. And my paper-thin soul.

So today is my last day for my class entitled Navigating The Treacherous Terrain of the First Fifty Pages Of the Middle Grade Novel (A Survivor’s Guide). Because, whatever. I like long titles. And I feel like six weeks isn’t long enough to give them what they need. And I feel like six weeks isn’t long enough to spend in the company of such a capital group. And I want to leave them with stuff they can use – bits of materials and instructions and know-how. Maps. Translations. Magic runes.

So I wrote them this – a Q&A of sorts. And now I turn it to you, dear readers. What more should I include? What will be useful for my collection of students who are either done with their novels, or well on their way? What pieces of wisdom do you have.

This is what I have so far. Please add your thoughts in the comments:

Questions and Answers for the In-Progress Novelist

1.    What now?

Oh, my dears and darlings! I wish I could tell you for sure. These are the things that must happen, though, before you can even consider sending your work into the world – finish the draft; let it sit with you for a bit; read it over with fresh eyes; revise; let someone else read it; listen to their comments; really listen; revise; read it again; revise; drink tea; love your families and give them gifts of appreciation and apologize profusely for your distinctly odd behavior while in the process of novel-making; read great books that challenge you and make you want to write better books; revise again.

2.  Do I need a writer’s group?

Not necessarily, but you should have readers. Usually we call these beta readers, and they are the trusted folks who will generously give their time to read your stuff and tell you – without reservation – what they think. You do not need to follow their advice. What you do need to do is notice the spots in your manuscript that give your readers trouble. And you need to recognize that the weak spots in your story are, in fact, opportunities to dig in, crack the thing open, examine the innards and mechanisms and structures, and to make your work stronger – complete and whole and separate from you.

3.   So where do I find these readers? (And by the way, my Social Anxiety Disorder prevents me from making direct eye contact or meeting new people.)

Fear not! The world is filled with writers! Obviously, the Loft is a great resource, and you can connect with classmates or fellow scribblers in the coffee shop or folks who show up at readings or whatever. If face-to-face contact scares you, fear not! The internets exist! Places like absolutewrite.com and critique.org are wonderful places to find critique partners. The Verla Kay boards are incredibly helpful as well. Also, for those of you who are not scared of by Twitter, there are several weekly chats that happen in the twitterverse that create spaces for people across the industry – the pre-published, the just-published, the oft-published, as well as agents, editors, publicists and hangers-on – to connect and exchange ideas surrounding pre-set topics. There are three that I participate in from time to time (when bedtime doesn’t get in the way): #kidlitchat happens on Tuesdays, #yalitchat is on Wednesdays, and #mglitchat is every Thursday – all at 8pm Central time. I have made very strong connections – and even friendships – with other writers that way. I’ve exchanged manuscripts with people and have gotten beautiful feedback. But mostly, this job is hard. And it’s lonely. And tribes exist for a reason. We need to find people who honor what we do, who see its value, and who give us shoulders to lean on when things are tough. We need to find people that we can be kind to – with whom we can share our own knowledge and experience and expertise. In the end, community matters, and it’s good to be part of one.

4.    Do I need an agent?

Yes. Well, not necessarily. But holy smokes, do they ever make things easier.

5.    Can you elaborate?

Sure. And let me clarify – if your intention is to go at this via the independent, self-publishing route, then you do not need an agent. If you only want to finish the novel, make some nice copies of it and share them with your friends and loved ones, then there are approximately nine million avenues to make that happen – Lulu.com is the first one to come to mind – and enjoy! There is nothing better than sharing stories with people you care about. If you are planning on writing a series of fast-paced novels (maybe three or four a year) and selling them as e-books, keeping the lion’s share of the revenues for yourself, that is a fine option as well. Lots of people do this; a goodly sum of them do it for the love and couldn’t care less about the money; a small-but-growing number break even, or make a modest profit; and a very small number are able to pay their bills with what they sell independently. Like traditional publishing, it’s a bit of a crap-shoot. But none of us are in this business to get rich. Heck, even the folks on the NYT Best Seller List aren’t getting rich. It’s just the fact of the matter.

HOWEVER, if your intent is to eventually get your books on the desks of editors who work for the large publishers, then YES you need an agent. Even many of the small publishers require agents these days. Your agent is part critique-partner, part business-analyst, part guru/spirit guide, part money-manager, part pit-bull, part suave-savvy-deal-maker, part career-mapper, and part publishing-speak-translator. I would be lost without my agent. Lost!

6.    Can we talk about money?

Of course we can, but alas, it’s not very useful. (Unless ranges like “from 0 to infinity” can be described as useful. In which case, awesome.) We could talk about averages and outliers, but in the end, publishers make decisions about the advance based on what they think they can recoup from that individual book, or what they think they can make back from that particular writer over the long term. Sometimes, a higher advance is a publisher’s way of signaling what their intended marketing and packaging budget will be for the book, but not always. There are writers who come out of the gate with six-figure advance deals. These are not typical. A typical first-time author will, if they are very lucky, land a book deal that stands at around $5-30k. But the thing is? This is not money you can reliably depend on. Because even if you’re getting 100k – that’s a lot, right? But then 15% goes to your agent (because without them you wouldn’t have had that money to begin with), and then there are self-employment taxes (did you know that self-employed people get taxed at a higher rate than other people? Well now you know.) and health insurance costs, and office incidentals, and then there is the fact that money comes in huge chunks that do not respond to your other bills, and can be delayed for reasons totally outside of your control (your editor goes on maternity leave, your book gets moved to another list, your publisher merges with another publisher, thereby putting your book’s very existence in question, etc.) . This is money you cannot depend upon. This is an unreliable way to make a living. It is much, much better to consider this a side-job, OR to have a spouse whose income is reliable, and accept your role as a kept man or woman. In my case, both my husband and I are self-employed and are accustomed to this life that we have built on a complicated DIY structure made of duct tape, cast-off lumber, a bit of twine, wire, papier-mâché, and gum. It is sometimes possible, but just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. And it isn’t for everyone. It’s better, and recommended,  to maintain a consistent income, and to use the revenues from writing to buy some freedom from time to time (sabbaticals, and what have you).

7.    Do I have to be on social media?

You do not have to be, but it does help. When you are in the process of querying, the first thing an agent will do (assuming your work is compelling enough to justify the time) is to see what bits of you exist online – on twitter, on a blog, on facebook, on Pinterest, whatever. Part of this is just to see if you’re setting off their Jerk-O-Meters (because no one wants to work with a jerk). Part of this is to see what kind of potential readership you already have (again, you don’t need this, it’s just a thing that’s good to know). Part of this is to see what your potential vectors are for book promotion. Now, that being said, the purpose of social media – regardless of type – is for communication, collaboration, and creative community-building. If you have a blog that is entirely dedicated to the pictures you snap on your daily walks, or the prayers that you offer to the universe, or pictures of your kids, or your own artwork, or surrealistic and post-apocalyptic newspaper articles from a 25th century human colony on Mars, or whatever, that is fine. If your whole social media profile is limited to transcribing the fart jokes your neighbor kid tells you onto Twitter. That’s fine too. No matter what, it should be natural to you, it should be fun for you, and if you try to force it, it won’t work. Try it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, don’t sweat it.

8.     How do I find an agent?

Great question! Have you heard of Google? That’s not really a question, but it is part of the answer here.

No matter what, you want to find an agent whose interests and literary proclivities mirror your own. You want an agent who loves your work. This is important. So make a stack of books you love and find out who represents those writers. To do this, you can either take a look at the acknowledgement page, as many writers will thank their agents there, OR you can find the author’s web page (as most have one these days) and you should be able to find it some place on there (usually on the Contact page), OR you can simply google the phrase “Who represents _______?” or “Who is ____________’s literary agent?” and something should come up. I get about ten of these search terms coming to my blog every day.

Another great resource is Agentquery.com, which allows you to search agents to represent specific genres. They also show a sampling of a particular agent’s other clients to give you a range of their representation, and links to their websites and submissions pages.

But here’s the thing – and I cannot stress this enough: the query process, I feel, is a blunt and unwieldy tool, and it is not representative of the relationship that you are attempting to enter into. Agents work on behalf of writers and in cooperation with writers, but they do not work for writers. They are independent, savvy, and highly communicative individuals with broad and nuanced relationships with lots and lots of important folks in the industry. They can read people very well, and are incredibly perceptive when it comes to tastes. You want to partner with someone who has a profound and passionate understanding of your work, who is someone you trust as a reader, who will protect your interests, who has a clear vision of what your career can be, and – most importantly – is someone that you like. So how do you figure that out? Again, Twitter can be helpful. Lots of agents tweet. Not all do, of course, but for those that do, it can be an insight into their interests and curiosities, their humor and their passions, their politics and their reading lists. Another thing: blogs. Lots of agents blog. If you are considering querying them, make sure you have read it. And third, agents usually appear all over google. They will be mentioned in their clients’ blog posts, their bios will appear on writer convention presenter lists, they will have done interviews or Q&A’s, they will be pictured at a SCBWI event, or whatever. Do your research. Know before you query. Talk to them if they are interested in your work. And ask yourself, “Do I want to be in a productive, creative relationship with this person? And how would that work?”

9. Ummmm. How do I write a query letter?

Don’t stress the query letter. Keep it short, keep it snappy, give enough of a hook to draw your potential reader to the page, and then be devastating and original in your actual fiction. Most agents ask that you include five pages with your query (typically pasted right into the email, because agents are skittish of attachments as a general rule). These pages don’t just have to be great – they have to be amazing. Be amazing. This is your new rule.

Now, if you are still stressing the query, there is help online. Miss Snark has long since stopped blogging, but her archives are still up. Google her, read everything. And you’re welcome.

If you are interested in getting your query critiqued, hop over to Queryshark.blogspot.com. Note: read the blog first. It is not for the faint of heart.

And again, it’s good to read agent’s blogs. Many have written excellent posts on what they are looking for in a query, and what they are not. Also, be sure to read the guidelines obsessively with each agent you query. Follow the dang directions. I cannot stress this enough.

10. Any more thoughts?

Write. Every day. Finish this book. Revise this book. Write the next book. And then another. And then another. Accept the fact that I know lots of writers with first and second and third novels living quite happily in a drawer somewhere, never to see the light of day. This is normal. If you could write one novel, you can write two. Your second novel will invariably be better than your first. If you can write two novels, you can write ten. Challenge yourself. Insist on getting better. Write vigorously, prodigiously, brutally, and with great love. Be expansive. Be sly. Be amazing.

And, as with any great thing, keep a long view. Your speed in initial publication has no bearing on the number of books you produce over the course of your lifetime. Just write the damn books. The rest will come in its own time.

All right, folks. What am I missing?

In which I discover that my job has Downsides.

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Extreme caveat: If you are a writer and happen to have a kid or two running around the house, you may want to skip this post. Hell, I lived through it and I kinda want to skip this post.

My son’s second grade teacher returned to work after her maternity leave last week. I’m thrilled about it – which is not to say that I didn’t like the substitute. I did. But oh! I really like this teacher. My daughter had her as well in second grade, and I think she is rainbows and poppy fields and fairy wings. She leaves a trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is wonderful.

So, to welcome her back, I stuck a little care package in Leo’s backpack (a nice pen, yummy candies, note cards, etc.) and stuck in a copy of Iron Hearted Violet to add to her class library for good measure. I figured most of the kids in the class are too young for it, but she has a couple of students who are tearing their way through the Harry Potter books who would be ready for Violet. Plus, she already had Mostly True Story of Jack in her classroom library, so might as well have the two, right? I put both things into the backpack, but one came back again. Leo gave her the care package, but not the book.

So I asked him about it.

“I’m not going to give it to her,” he said. He didn’t look at my face. He shoved his hands into his pocket and looked at the ground.

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to. But I’m curious. Why not?”

He started walking in a circle. My daughters who were both reading their books on the couch looked up. Tight mouths. A grimace hiding in the crinkles around their eyes.

“I don’t want her to know my mom is a writer,” he said. The girls sighed as one. I looked back at them, and they instantly buried their faces back in their books. I turned back to Leo.

“Why?” I said.

“Because, ” he said. He still didn’t want to look at me.

“Do you know that she already knows I’m a writer. She has all of my nonfiction books too. And Jack. Why does it matter if she has Violet?”

“Well,” Leo said. “Maybe she forgot. She probably forgot. So I’m not gonna tell her again.”

I looked back at the girls. They held their books rigid, without turning the pages. “Girls,” I said. They did not respond. I pressed on. “Does it bother you when people know what I do for a living?”

The skin on Ella’s forehead wobbled and bunched, her lips crinkling up into a tight rosebud in the center of her face. “Ummm….” she began.

“It’s not that….” DeeDee said.

“I mean….” Ella faltered.

I raised my eyebrows. “It really bothers you that much?”

DeeDee nodded.

“Not regular people,” Ella clarified. “Regular people know what you do and it’s no problem because we can ignore them. And we do. But teachers?”

DeeDee gave a great, guttural sigh and slumped into the couch.

“Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it. And use their overly-excited teacher voices and get all breathy and stuff and they say things like ‘Oh your mother is a writer and oh that must be so wonderful for you and oh excuse me while I raise my expectations for you forever.”

“They think things about us,” DeeDee said. “Wrong things.

“It’s annoying,” Leo said.

“It’s awful,” Ella said.

“It’s the worst,” concluded DeeDee.

“And they don’t know what it’s like,” Ella said. “They only see the book when it’s done, and they think, oh cool a book! And it’s true. The book is cool. But they don’t know the other parts that go with it. The moping and the whining and the long nights.”

“And crying,” DeeDee added. “Sometimes there’s crying.”

“And the You Being Gone.

“We hate it when you’re gone,” Leo said.

“And the clicking computer late at night and it wakes me up because I know you’re up,” DeeDee said.

“And the muttering. And the emails. And the emails with muttering. And don’t even get me started on Twitter,” Ella said.

“I hate Twitter,” Leo said.

“And then we have to like the book. And, like, what if we don’t?” DeeDee said.

“You don’t have to like it, sweetheart,” I said. “That has never been a rule. You don’t even have to read it.”

“And we’re proud of you,” Ella continued, “but most people just think that writers just print a book out of their computers and viola. But we know all the other stuff that goes with it. And it is not all good stuff.”

I must have looked rather aghast, because the kids all looked at one another and started to backtrack.

“But we really love you, mom,” Ella assured me, and hugged me. And the other children hugged me too. They kissed my hands and nuzzled my face and told me I was a Good Mom, Mostly – which is all I’ve ever aspired to be. Every day, I try to maximize the Mostly.

And then I made soup. And tried to quell the Dark Thoughts in my soul.

And here’s the thing. This job is hard. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on the people who love us. We love the characters in our stories; we worry about them, fuss over them and mourn them when they die. We fashion a world for them to live in, and we labor and sweat to heave huge elements together, to slide whole continents into place and hang the stars in their firmaments and conjure storms and mountains and wide oceans and the vastness of space; we build families and dynasties and nations; lust, joy, betrayal, consequences, and mad, mad, true love. We invent histories and intimacies and broken hearts. We walk on the backs of teeming schools of fish and allow ourselves to be devoured by wolves and consult oracles and, when we are stuck, we offer our dinner to a beggar and hope for the best.

And then – then! We are buffeted by things we cannot control – reviews, marketing campaigns, sales executives and librarians. We experience failure. We experience defeat. We are elated, then crushed; we sink and then we soar – sometimes in a single afternoon. And we don’t get to experience the one thing that drives us to the page every day. We do not get to witness the child that pulls our book off the shelf. We do not get to see the world that we hinted at uncurling from their brain. We do not get to bear witness to the imagination of the reader at work. Our book is our proxy. And we pray that it is enough.

My job is hard on my kids. It is hard on my husband. It is hard. It is not the only job in the world for which this is true. Lots of us have hard jobs – and we do them with real commitment and love. We do them because we are called, or we believe in the work, or because of necessity. For whatever the reason, we balance the needs of our family and the needs of our work, and it is not always perfect. We do our best, and we do a mostly good job.

Later that night, I laid down with Leo and asked him if he wanted another chapter of Watership Down.

“Not tonight, mom,” he said. “I want one of your stories. And mine. The kind of story that we tell together.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s in this story?”

“A boy, and a mom, and a monster that lives in a swamp,” he said.

“Does the monster quote poetry?” I asked.

“All monsters quote poetry,” Leo said. “Ask anyone you like.”

And so we began.