Read All the Things – it’s not WHAT we read, it’s HOW we read that matters.

Dorothea Lange - Girls of Lincoln Bench School study their reading lesson. Near Ontario, Malheur County, Oregon, 1939

There have been over the last few months – and I’m sure you’ve seen them – articles circulating. Perhaps you read one in The New Yorker. Perhaps you saw an enraged discussion on Twitter. Perhaps you saw a delightful evisceration or a snarky confrontation on Tumblr. In any case, the format has been the same – some stuffy grownup laments in a poorly-thought-out article about the State of Reading. Adults are reading books for children! Oh, Woe! Children are reading books that they actually enjoy! Oh, Fie! People are reading books that I do not enjoy and do not match this ascot! Gracious, gracious me! The world, it would seem, is on its way to an unpleasant destination after being tucked into this cozy handbasket.

And the concern has been palpable. “If,” one pundit posed, “American adults only read five novels a year, shouldn’t those books be at their level?” This argument particularly interested me, actually, because it revealed the fundamental fallacy in the initial postulations upon which these arguments are built. They are assuming that a book is an accomplishment. Like running a 10k. Or scoring well on a test. Something to be finished, checked off, removed from the to-do list, and probably not thought of again.

But they’re not. Books are not accomplishments. They are relationships. And how we build those relationships matter.

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Let me explain:

Around this time last year, I was in the midst of an epic battle. My son, now ten, because of his testing anxiety, had been placed in one of the lowest Reading classes – problematic in and of itself, made more problematic in the dramatic shift in pedagogy between the upper and lower Reading groups. The kids who tested well were placed in Literature, where they, as a group, delved into great works of Children’s Literature – Black Beauty; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Jungle Book. They would read and discuss and make art. It was a wonderful foundational class. The kids in the lower reading group were stuck in a SRA curriculum, which meant they did not read great great novels at all. Instead they read passages from a text book, out loud, placing a stylus on each word as they went, and if they did not read it perfectly, they had to go back. Which meant, if the kids got bored (they were all bored), and they found themselves wandering, and sometimes misplacing an “a” for a “the”, they couldn’t progress, and had to do the same passage and the same chapter over and over and over. It was punitive. It was demoralizing. It was awful. And I had a kid who said he was “too stupid to read.”

And that’s when my eyeballs caught fire.

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That all changed when I fought to get him moved. (And believe me, it was a fight. I donned my armor and pulled out my Sword of Righteousness and marched into battle. As any mother would) Once he was safely placed in his Literature class, from the very first day, he transformed. Instantly. And it was wonderful. The first book he read in that class was The Cricket in Times SquareNow here’s the thing about my son – he is a creative, energetic, highly tactile boy. He enjoys reading, and reads well, but he often just had too much energy to sit down and read. He wanted to run. He wanted to build. He liked listening to books, because he could make crazy spaceships with his Legos while he did so. But this book. This was transformative. It was the first time that I saw him reading ahead, and going back and re-reading passages. It was the first time I ever heard him quote a book he was reading. It was the first time that I saw him get teary-eyed when he read a book, or apply his reading of a text into regular-life situations. He had a relationship with that book. And he counted those characters as his friends.

And that got me thinking.

These articles – these hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, tut-tutting articles – all suffer from the same pedantic sneer, this assumption that since I, the writer, do not particularly care for what those people are reading, that it is somehow suspect. That it is not as cultured or illuminated or difficult or grownup. It does not show up in Harold Bloom’s ranting about Cannon. It was not plucked from a polished library full of old leather tomes by great, white men. It is a book with magic in it. It is a book with speculative science in it. It is a book with children in it. It is – horror of horrors – a book with teenaged girls in it. How we ever got to a point in our culture where reasonable-looking grownups feel no qualms in saying that the lives and struggles of teenaged girls are not worth reading about is mystifying to me. The most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner is a teenaged girl, for crying out loud. And what’s more, what these writers are totally missing out on is the fundamental nature of reading.

Listen. Reading is not consumption. A book is not an accomplishment. And if you think either of those things are true, then you are missing out on the transformative power of a book.

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My son, right now, is reading A Wrinkle in Time. Because of that, he is filled with questions about physics and cosmology and astronomy. And angels. And Free Will. And giant brains. He has pulled out all of my astronomy books that I brought home when I participated in the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. He has discovered Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He talks about Calvin and Meg as though they were extra members of our household. He is building Camazots in Lego. He is drawing pictures of the Happy Medium. He sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Whatsit. He wrote a poem about Charles Wallace. He approaches the text with his full self – his curiosity, his creativity, his need for motion, his need to build – and offers his Self to the story. And the Story, in turn, offers itself to my child. That is how it’s done. Open-hearted reading.

My son gets it. I think you get it. But, in our wildest dreams, will the stuffy grownups at Harpers or The New Yorker or Salon or whatever – will they get it too? Do we dare to hope for such a thing?

I will hope. It is what I do.

My reading – like most people I know – is broad and wide. I read a lot. I do not stick to a single genre. I read children’s books and grown ups books and science books and picture books and old books and new books.  I do not care what anyone thinks of that. I sometimes read in fits and starts. I have books around my house in various stages of mid-read, with bits of paper sticking out, sometimes with little notes on them. “Remember this for later,” my notes say. Or, “Use this passage the next time you teach a class.” Or, “Why the hell can’t you write like that, Barnhill?” Or, “Write this on your skin.”

I finished Dana Sobel’s Longitude recently – a book about how one clockmaker changed navigation forever. I just finished We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick that one up. It was wondrous. I just started Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future, by A.S. King. It is also wondrous. It is YA. It is magical. It transcends every boundary imaginable, just as all great fiction should. And I’m also reading One, Two, Three . . . Infinity, by George Gamow, which, oh my gosh, you guys! Read it right now. It is marvelous. I’m also reading A Creature of Moonlightby Rebecca Hahn. Also wonderful. That voice! That vision! It is a remarkable book. I’ve also been very slowly reading through The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – an exhaustive anthology of Weird fiction. It is amazing. You should read it. And, since the passing of Galway Kinnell, I’ve been reading through my various volumes of his work. Because I love him forever. And I have a copy of The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, that I keep on my desk. I page through it and let his odd-ball versions of reality, wrought in precise, alarmingly-clear prose, pummel my brain. Wake up! Borges tells me yet again. Pay attention! The world is wondrous strange! Get it right! And so I do. Borges is my personal trainer. And he is ever so bossy. And soon I will start The Grimjinx Rebellion, by Brian Farrey. If it is anything like the first two books in that series (WHICH WERE AWESOME), I have no doubts that it will be marvelous. I read short fiction as well – on Clarkesworld and Tor.com. And in the New Yorker. And McSweeney’sAnd my every-three-week arrival of One Story.

For those of you keeping track at home, what we see here is that I read everything. I read nonfiction and fiction. History and science. Literary fiction and Middle Grade fiction and Horror fiction and Science Fiction and Young Adult fiction and Fantasy Fiction. I don’t read a lot of Romance – not through any kind of snobbery, but simply because I’m unfamiliar enough with the genre that I don’t know who the good writers are (if you have any suggestions, please send them!) The point is this: I love reading. I love the touch of paper in my fingers. I love the smell of ink. I love the loafe and lean of my couch. I love resting a mug of tea on my belly and balancing the book on my knees. I love letting my mind wander. I love asking questions. I love wrestling with a text. I love caring about characters. I love staying up late with breathless pages, wondering what will happen next. I love every dang bit of it.

Books are maps, yes. And they are mirrors and lamps. And they are the cultural threads that bind us together. But they are more than that. They live with us. They comfort us. They remind us that we are not alone. When I read, I am offering myself to the story. I bring to the story – any story – my own experience and knowledge. I bring my curiosity. I bring my empathy. I bring my own open heart. When we read, we are opening ourselves up to be changed. And the book, whatever we are reading, is doing the same thing. When I read a book, that book is changed. The version of the story that plays out in my head is unique to me. And when I communicate that version – that vision – the larger cultural understanding alters too. That’s how stories live in the culture. They are not static; they are not objects; they are not dead. Books, stories – they are alive. And when we connect ourselves to books, we are larger, brighter, interconnected, ensouled. We are more alive.

And when we talk about books – and our relationships with those books – we are not just talking about the books. We are talking about ourselves. And our loved ones. And the world.

When we ask one another, “What are you reading these days?” it should never be an occasion for judgement or assessment or assignment into any sort of pecking order. That would be missing the point. Instead, what we should say is this: Tell me what you felt. Tell me how you cared. Tell me what you carried with you – both toward and away. Tell me why we matter.

Happy reading, everyone. Please. Tell me what books are living with you right now. And tell me why they matter.

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Dragonflies Draw Flame

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For most of my life, I’ve had a bit of a poem printed out on a piece of cardstock, laminated to make it last longer, tucked into my wallet. I’ve had to re-do it from time to time – even lamination doesn’t last forever. But I hold it and look at it and whisper it sometimes like a prayer.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
                     -Gerard Manley Hopkins
One thing about living with a poem for a long time – and it has been long. I am forty now. Soon I will be forty-one. I’ve had this same bit of a poem in my pocket or purse or wallet since I was fifteen – is that different tangles of language find their way into the gears of my mind and become lodged there. There was a time when I sought the truth from dragonflies. There was a time I listened to the ringing of stones. There was a time the natural world played for me like an orchestra – each leaf, each blade of grass, each feathered wing was for me the tucked string ready to play its song. The whole world was for me the swung bell.
My name, I felt, was a thing flung. Myself it speaks and spells. 
That is still true. All of those things are still true. My soul falls on different beats of the poem and lands there for a while. And where it lands feels meaningful. It is meaningful.
I am writing a book right now that has an ancient creature who quotes an ancient poet. Which means I have been having to make up some ancient poetry that would be for Glerk – my beloved swamp monster – as this poem has been for me: touchstone and riddle; puzzle and balm. This is good because I am reading more poetry than I usually do. Ancient poetry. Sappho and Rumi and Enheduanna and Matsuo Bashō. I discovered “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, an Egyptian epic poem over four thousand years old that I had managed to never know about until now.  This is a good thing. It is good to learn.
After all, what I do is me. I learn. I wonder. I go outdoors. I stare too closely at the sun. Each bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.
When we write stories, we do not do so to express ourselves. We write stories in the same way that a carpenter builds a chair – it is an exercise of skill and precision and artistry and form. It is creating a thing that is separate from ourselves. We tell ourselves this, and it is true. And yet. Each time I write a story, I find my way toward something central in me as well. And often it is an aspect of me that perhaps I have forgotten about. I am writing about a swamp monster who quotes ancient poetry. Researching ancient poetry has led the paths of my mind circling back toward the person that I was when I first printed out that poem and laminated it. A person who looked toward an unknowable knot of language and tried to find the true thing hidden in the spaces between the sprung rhythm. I am writing about Glerk, and Glerk is leading me to me.
It is a strange thing to notice. Glerk is a character borne out of my imagination. And yet he is bossing me around. Typical.
I read another poem today that made me cry. I used to write poetry every day. Now I never do. Perhaps it’s time for me to start again. Maybe that’s what my imagination is attempting to lead me toward. Perhaps that is why I started writing this book – to lead me back toward myself. What I do is me; for that I came.
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LOCATION, PARKING INFO FOR OCTOBER | ‘THE WITCH’S BOY,’ VISIT WITH AUTHOR KELLY BARNHILL

Hey everyone! I’ll be in Stillwater this weekend with the Deep Blue Readers. If you’re so inclined, I’d love to see you. Here are the details about the event. ❤

Deep Blue Readers

Barnhill_frontWhat a treat! Acclaimed Minnesota author Kelly Barnhill, whose newest book ‘The Witch’s Boy‘ has earned glowing reviews from Kirkus, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, will be visiting with us Sunday, 10/26 at 1:30. We hope you’ll join us for book discussion, signing, and festive treats provided by Valley Bookseller. Books will be available for purchase.

As the renovations at Valley Bookseller continue, we will be meeting this month in the upstairs classrooms at ArtReach St. Croix in Stillwater, 224 North 4th Street, across the street from the iconic entrance to Stillwater Public Library. Street parking is available and should prove easier as the autumn festival season winds down and peak tree color is fading.

Click for more about our upcoming November book club title, ‘Countdown’ by Deborah Wiles, whose sequel ‘Revolution’ has been shortlisted for the National Book…

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Attention Minnesota Teachers and Librarians and Book-Wormy-Kids: The 90-Newbery is coming! Are you ready?

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Dear Bookish Children of Minnesota (and their assorted Educators and Media Specialists, and Book-Purveyors),

Obviously, I do not have to tell you what the Newbery Medal is – you see those stickers on books all across the land – but some of you may not have heard of the 90-second Newbery Film Festiva. And what’s more many of you may not know that the film festival is coming here! To Minnesota! For kids, by kids, and it will be AWESOME!

Let’s back up a bit. Let’s have the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival explain itself in its own words, shall we?

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in 90 seconds or less. Every year, the best movies are shown at gala in screenings New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, and Tacoma—co-hosted by founder James Kennedy and other award-winning children’s authors such as Jon Scieszka, Libba Bray, Kate DiCamillo, Blue Balliett, and many more!

This is an amazingly fun program, started by James Kennedy (author of Order of the Odd-Fish),  and this year, there will be a screening here in Minnesota! On Saturday, February 28! Co-hosted by me, Kelly Barnhill (author of some other books)! Need proof? Look! (And I’d like to point out that this is my first screen shot of my whole life. You may praise me at your earliest convenience.)

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This is how it works:

You read a Newbery-Medal-or-Honor-winning book. There are lots to choose from. You make a video acting out the whole story in just 90 seconds. Think it’s impossible? Think again:

Or this silent-film-style gem:

If you need some inspiration, take a look at this list of the top 25 90-Second Newbery films OF ALL TIME!

Anyway, here’s the rules (I’m copying them from the site):

The rules:

1. Your video should be 90 seconds or less. (Okay, okay: if it’s two minutes long but absolute genius, we’ll bend the rules for you. But let’s try to keep them short.)

2. Your video has to be about a Newbery award-winning (or Newbery honor-winning) book. Here’s a list of all the winners.

3. No book trailers! No video book reports! We’re looking for full-on dramatizations, with mostly child actors, that manage to tell the entire story of the book in 90 seconds.

4. Upload your videos to YouTube or Vimeo or whatever and send me the link at kennedyjames [at] gmail [dot] com. Make the subject line be “90 SECOND NEWBERY” and please tell me your name, age, where you’re from, and whatever other comments you’d like to include, including whether you’d like me to link to your personal site. You can give an alias if you want; I understand privacy concerns.

5. Sending the link to me grants me (James Kennedy) the right to post it on my blog and to other websites where I sometimes post content (like Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and to share at public readings, school visits—and hopefully the “90-Second Newbery” Film Festival screenings!

6. The deadline for the FOURTH annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is December 20, 2014.

 

Got it? Let’s review: Read a book that has a Newbery sticker on it. Make a video re-telling the story. Do it with friends! Do it with family! Make your teddy bears act out Dicey’s Song or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or whatever! Send it to Mr. Kennedy by December 20, and mark your calendars, and plan on meeting me at the Minneapolis Central Library on February 28! More details to come. And maybe someone should tell me what on earth I should wear to this thing. Current fashion concept: sequined dress with Converse sneakers and perhaps stripey tights. Thoughts?

 

Seriously though, I can’t wait to watch your videos. This is going to be the best!

 

The Architects of our Imaginations

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Yesterday was Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday – one of my favorite writers, thinkers and storytellers. I started the day reading an an essay she wrote called “Introducing Myself”, which later sent me exploring the landscape of my brain in which Earthsea and Ged and Arha and Kalessin still hold sway. It is like this with books, I think. They build structures, cities, regions, and cosmologies. They do not just bend space and time – they create space and time, within us. And those places remain forever.  So I wrote this tweet:

Which got me thinking. What are the books that helped to build my brain? Who are the writers who engineered and designed the different regions of my imagination – imprinting the space from which my own stories are born?

I know for sure that I owe my fascination with landforms and geography to the writings of Le Guin and Tolkien. I’m a nature girl as a matter of course, and have even composed whole sections of my novel while camping in the wilderness with my family (six chapters of The Witch’s Boy, for example, were penned on a lake-dampened notebook while sitting cross legged on a boulder jutting out of Flame Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a million acre wilderness area that stretches across northern Minnesota and Canada.

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To L. Frank Baum and his unsettling weirdness, however, I owe my penchant for the Strange, the Odd-Ball, the Disarmingly Creepy, and the Whimsically Grotesque. It was in these pages that I fell in love with vegetable people (who, if you sliced them in half, you just planted them, and they grew new versions of themselves), and gender-swapping hero/heroines, and animated sofa-beasts, and bulbous bellied clockwork men. I grew to love enormous, well-dressed insects and girls made of patchwork and girls made of rainbows and creatures with wheels instead of hands and an army of girls armed with knitting needles. I sometimes have to reign in my fascination for the weird and creepy – not every reader loves the Weird the way I love the Weird – but there is no doubt it seeps into the ground of my stories’ making, even now.

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To E. Nesbit, I owe my focus on familial relationships and the nuance of siblingry. C.S. Lewis does this too, of course, but I always found Nesbit’s families and sibling interplay to be far more believable. Family -in all its tensions, feints, and layers of meaning – is its own wild adventure. We’re all lucky we make it out alive. I, myself, was from a large family – four sisters and a brother, plus innumerable cousins and second cousins – and the loyalty and frustration of sibling-hood in Nesbit’s books was always equally as important as whatever magical mayhem the kids in question tended to find themselves in. Wish-granting sand fairies, who’s in charge of the baby brother, various phoenixes, I think you’ve stolen my shoes, wishes gone wrong, sibling rivalry, enchanted castles, and the exact phrase that will make your brother go bananas. The sibling relationship becomes the lens through which the adventure is viewed. And I love that. I still love it. (And I love my siblings, even when they make me crazy.)

 
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And to both A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia series I am given permission to explore aspects of my faith in storytelling. I am, at the best of times, a prickly Christian and an awkward Catholic. My faith is both the balm of my heart and the thorn in my side – I needle; I fuss; I argue; I treasure; I long; I resent; I seek; I close my eyes. I think I am not alone in this. My whole life, I’ve been looking for god, and god manages to show up for me at the oddest times and in the most unlikely places. I don’t write overtly about faith nor do I seek to proselytize through fiction. Indeed, any attempts to do so, I feel, are a mistake. But that part of my spirit that leans toward the Light, that part of me that feels very much that the communion of saints is a physical connection – you and I are part of the same Body, and I am as bound to you as my knuckle is bound to my hand, and my blood is bound to my heart – it is present when I write stories. This is likely why I feel I am much more likely to be accused of heresy than my atheist writer friends (and frankly, I am delighted when this happens), but all’s fair in love and fiction.

For those of you who grew up with books, which authors are the architects of your imagination? Which books built the landscapes inside you? Which are the maps that you travel by? I am terribly curious to know.

 

Today! At Uncle Hugo’s!

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The Will and Kelly show continues for one more day. I will be at Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore with the most esteemed William Alexander, and we will be signing books. 1:00. Be there or be some kind of quadrilateral.

For the book lover, there really is no better place on earth than the twin cities. Our independent bookstores are numerous and well-visited, and each one is unique unto itself. They have their own distinct personalities, flavors, secrets and predilections. They welcome; they entice; they encourage their own particular brands of wonder. Uncle Hugo’s occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart. It is a bookstore’s bookstore – the shelves so crowded and the corridors so narrow, that the weight of stories begin to coalesce into their own strange gravity. Space bends in that bookstore. Time, too. Entire libraries are compressed onto a single shelf. Entire universes onto one dusty page. There is more stuff in that bookstore than there is stuff in the known universe. I will be pulled in, wrapped up, smothered with words. I will be pinned into paper, drowned in ink, surrounded with stories. I may not make it out alive. There are worse ways to go, though, really.

To Uncle Hugo’s I go! Wish me luck! (And you should come!)

 

IT’S BOOKFEST DAY!

*runs down stairs in jammies*

*looks under the bookshelf to see if the Bookfest Fairy has arrived*

(not yet, my pretties, but soon)

Today is the Twin Cities Book Festival, which is one of my top ten favorite things about living in the Twin Cities. I love the booths, I love the conversations, I love the dedication to Children’s Literature, I love the bowls of candy being handed out like, well, like candy. I love finding out what independent artists are working on. I like seeing the latest from letterpress poetry publishers and indie comic producers. I love the myriad of manifestations of story and language and image and art. I love everything about it.

I will be presenting at 11:00 at Middle Grade Headquarters with Our Dear Will Alexander and his Fine Novel, Ambassador. We will talk about our books, and the books we loved and space and time and magic and adventure. And perhaps pie. (I’m just kidding. I won’t talk about pie, I promise.) But I will answer your questions. Even the impertinent ones.

Stop by and say hello if you can.

In Which the Only Way Forward is Forward.

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I have this bad habit, as a writer. I erase. All the time. I’ve written about this, actually, and bragged about it too. My approach to revision: Select All; Delete. I have done this. Many times.

And I’ll use evocative language to describe it – something about standing at precipices, or burning the fields to make them bear, or pulling up the boundary fences and standing in the center of wild, limitless space. I’ll say something about the dust of supernovae giving rise to brand new galaxies and that nothing is ever really lost.

And I stand by it, mostly. But I’ve never actually told the whole story. Because sometimes, my crushing need to rid myself of chaff and weak sentences and imperfect paragraphs prevents my stories from moving forward. I write; I go back; I fuss; I erase; I re-write; I fuss; I erase; I re-write; I fuss; I erase. And the book gets stuck. And I become much more unpleasant to live with (my family denies that last bit, but I think they are just being nice).

Erasing can be empowering, but it can be a trap, too. I have been trapped. Ask anyone you like.

So this next book is erasure-free. I am trying it out as an experiment. I am not allowed to erase anything until I type “The End”. I am walking on a long, straight road, and I am not looking back – not for a second. Each day I write. Each day I bring the story a little further along. Each day I take notes on my little novel-progress notebook. What I noticed that writing day. What questions I have for my characters. Ideas to work in later. Things that I know I’ll have to fix, but I’m not going to right now.

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This is me. Right now. Except with a different hat.

And there is something to it, actually. This forward motion. I have absolutely no idea if the book sucks. I have absolutely no idea if my sentences are working. I have absolutely no idea if the texture of the language works rhythmically – if it feels good in the mouth and ear (this is something I put a lot of time into, actually. My books are read out loud somewhere on the order of a hundred times before I turn that sucker in.) Of course, this is not to say that I won’t erase later, or that I won’t spend hours and hours on a single sentence. What it does change, though, is this stage of the game. This process of invention and discovery. And I have to say, I’m having a pretty good time.

No. I’m having a great time.

I had a pretty good idea about the shape of this story before I began, but even now, thirty thousand words in, I’m encountering all kinds of things that have surprised me. For example:

1. There is a convent of nun-assassins who are both crafty and terrifying. Their needlework is as menacing as their swordplay.

2. There is a stone that looks like a stone but is actually a door.

3. The verses of ancient poetry are carved into the living trunks of ancient trees, spiraling around and around from the ground to the upper branches.

4. Sometimes, carpentry is a better career choice. Not everyone is cut out to be a despot, after all.

5. Paper birds can be used as weapons.

6. Magic, like puberty, can hit a person like a runaway garbage truck, and can be just as confusing, disorienting and undignified.

7. Sometimes we lie to the people we love. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. But it can make them not love us.

8. Gout is the most unpleasant of maladies.

9. Confounding architecture is ridiculously fun to write about.

10. Dragons are the biggest scaredy-cats in the whole wide world.

 As I said: It might be terrible. It likely is terrible. And maybe I can un-terrible it later, and maybe I cannot. But this freedom I feel right now – freedom from worry, freedom from fussing, freedom from beating myself up for not being perfect, freedom from casting a pale eye on the work I had done thereby slowing the work that I will do – well. It feels pretty great. And while clearing the decks on a manuscript and starting over sometimes feels wild and free and unencumbered, there is something to the forward motion as well.

There is no looking back. There is nothing behind me. There’s only my feet and my breath and my swinging arms. There is only my eyes on the mountain ahead. And clear, blue sky.

Double Entendres: the Fourth Grade Boy Edition

In the carpool today, my short-sleeve-shirted son shivered in the back seat next to his two neighborhood buddies. It was forty degrees. He refused to wear a jacket. He refused to wear pants. It was a struggle to even get that child into shorts (“Why aren’t underwear used as regular clothes, mom,” he asked. “Just give me one good reason.”)

“Leo,” I said. “I want you to check the lost and found today for the sweatshirts and coats that have mysteriously vanished from our house.”

“Oh, I have them,” he said. “In my locker. And in my bag.” He was shivering.

“Well,” I said. “Grab a hoodie and put it on.”

The other boys, normally a tangle of chatter, fell suddenly silent. They stared at me open-mouthed.

“Dude,” the red-haired boy side-mouth whispered to Leo. “Did your mom just say ‘woody’?”

And the boys started to choke on their own laughter.

“What?” I said. “No. I certainly did not say-”

“LEO’S MOM SAID WOODY!” one of the blondes wheezed.

AND THEN THEY ALL DIED. They died and they went to heaven and they got booted out and were sent back to their bodies where they died again. They were weak with laughing. They were like hyenas trapped in the grip of boa constrictors. They laughed to death again and again.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE EVEN KNOWS WHAT WOODY MEANS,” one of the other blondes gasped as he was slowly re-asphyxiated with hilarity. But then he came back to life. “Wait,” he said. “You do know what it means, don’t you?”

“Let’s watch Indiana Jones,” I said, popping the ancient tape into the more-ancient minivan VHS player – saying a silent prayer, once again, that the dumb thing still worked.

Because it was KILLING ME to keep a straight face. I might have died of it. I might already be dead.

On Writing Prequels: discovery, recovery, and the art of knowing.

This summer, I was given a challenge: write a prequel story to my new novel in three parts, to be run on three different blogs, one week apart from one another. This challenge I blithely accepted, asking myself what could possibly be difficult about this?

Nothing, I thought.

Everything, I discovered.

So I started writing somewhere around eight stories, all of which were utterly, utterly terrible. After living with these characters for so long, after knowing the timbre of their voices and the exact shape of their eyes, and the touch of their hands as they slid into mine and held on tight – I felt like I couldn’t find them when I sat down at the page. I felt like I was standing in the middle of an enormous cavern – damp, cold, and completely dark. I called their names – Ned! Aine! Sister Witch! Ott! Bandit King! Madame Thuane! Even that ridiculous Brin! – and nothing called back. Only the echoing sound of my own voice, over and over and over.

And I wondered: How do fanfiction writers do it? Seriously how do they? Because that is what I was writing. I wrote fanfiction to my own durn story. And it was hard. Writing a novel is ever so much the process of discovery – we find each character fully fleshed and formed and we just write down what we see. We meet them; we get to know them; we love them like family. But writing a tie-in story was much more the process of recovery. I had to take what I knew of these characters, make assumptions, ask questions, and dig. It was like reconstructing the personality of a recently-deceased grandmother, based on some newly-discovered letters.

Actually, that’s exactly what it was like.

Anyway, eventually I figured out which story was going to work out of my pages and pages of fits and starts, and I found my way through. And I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually. And I got to meet new characters. Interesting characters. And I got to look at the world that I lived in from a completely new direction – like discovering cool neighborhoods in a city where you used to live that you had no idea were there at all. And I was able to learn things about my characters that I did not know before. And that is the best part of my job: digging, sorting, discovering, making connections, collecting artifacts, finding new ways of knowing. I love it, really.

The nice folks at Bookshelves of Doom, Jessabella Reads and My Friends are Fiction were generous enough to host the three sections of my story. I have compiled all three sections into one page and put it up on my website: here. I hope you enjoy it.