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


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.)


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!


On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

I have violated my New Year’s Resolution. I erased a third of the novel. Irrevocably. I erased it on my computer, from the emailed copy I sent to myself, from Dropbox, from my husband’s email. Everywhere. Or so I thought.

I had a really good reason for doing this – largely, the general sucky, lousy prose – but I am regretting it now. I mean, I was. More on that in a minute.

There is a thing that can happen in the quiet of the office space. By the clicking of the keys or the scritching of the pen on the paper. That little, itchy, insinuating voice that creeps along the neck and down the spine. It’s bad breath tickles the ear. It has sticky fingers and a grubby face and hair like thistledown.

Really? the voice says.

That’s what you wrote?

No one could possibly like this.

Now, let’s be honest. The voice wasn’t wrong. The pages – eighty of them in all – were pretty crappy. However, the promises that the voice insisted were true – that my agent will never want to speak to me again, and that my editor will cancel my current book because good god what was I thinking, and that booksellers and librarians will, en masse, remove my book from the shelves and throw them in the garbage, and that my husband and children will disown me and that I will never write again, and really, why would I – well. Those are probably not true.

So I selected the last third of the book. And I erased it. And I stared at the screen. For a long time.

And then I did what many of us do when we are facing something difficult. I avoided.

I am an expert avoider. I could get an Olympic medal in Avoidance. Wait. Do they have those? I hope so, because that would be awesome.

Now, in my past, this period of avoidance has been prolonged and deep. Less so now. Now, at least I have learned to recognize avoidant behaviors and resistant behaviors. Now I have learned the importance of muddling through.

For me, muddling through means sometimes working on other things. Yesterday, for example, I was writing a scene that was emotionally exhausting and painful. To keep me moving, and keep me sane, I turned on a timer and opened another document. Twenty minutes working on the scene, twenty minutes writing a goofy, sexy, satirical story about Helen of Troy growing up – ugly and lonely – in that tower with her randy mom and her slutty dad. And it was super fun. I probably will never publish it, but that’s okay, because it got me through that scene – and that chapter.

Another thing that helps me muddle through is to be – shall we say – non monogamous – in my work habits. The book I’m working on was originally longhand, but the version on my computer is so utterly divorced from the original draft, that I can’t even use it anymore. Which means I am stuck on the computer – not a happy place for me. So I have another novel – that I might be finishing today, actually. And that’s totally longhand. And it’s completely different from the more serious novel that I’m currently married to. It’s funny and irreverent and biting. It’s a total departure from everything I’ve ever done. And – like most affairs, I’m told – it gives me the shivers just to touch it. Just to hold it close. But working on both projects allows me to keep both stories fresh, whole, and energized. It allows me to be fully present in both, because neither have gotten stale.

Also: I have a stack of notecards in my desk drawer upon which I write scene outlines, lovely sentences, story ideas, or whole paragraphs. I save these for later.

Also: I wrote a novella – something Not For Children. It poured out of me at Christmas time, and waits, quietly, while I decide what to do with it.

Also: I am revising two Broken Novels to see if I can un-break them. Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t. But the work itself is satisfying. It is filled with notes in margins in red pen and handwritten pages on looseleaf stuck into the binder. Binders full of words. It is a beautiful thing.

There is a theme here. Did you notice it?

Resistance happens to all of us. Avoidance happens to all of us. The only cure for writer’s block is writing. The only cure for bad writing is more writing. The only cure for those nasty voices that show up, unbidden, in our brains, is to write our way to the other side. Whatever project. Whatever it takes.

I discovered that the pages I erased weren’t entirely erased at all. Google Drive. I had forgotten I had done it. I was there last weekend looking for something else, and my novel winked back at me – beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t erase it. I decided to leave it there, untouched, and will continue on my way until I reach the end on this side. Then I will compare the two. It’s only fair.

Today, I have another tough scene to tackle. And I will tackle it. Today, I have a composition notebook that will have new pages with jokes and witches and perhaps a kid with a checkered past saving the day. Or maybe the witch will save him. I haven’t decided yet. Today, I will put more words in the short story about memory and I will fuss a bit more on the Lake Erie novel with shape-shifting dog-men.

Today, I will write words. I will not resist. And I will muddle through.

But first, I will turn on Freedom. Because, good god. The internets, man. So shiny. So devious. In the meantime, I am curious about you folks. How do you muddle through? How do you break down your resistance and get work on the page? How do you quell those ugly voices and tell them to shut up and be done with it? I am terribly curious.


Right Writer, Wrong Book

Once, a long time ago, I wrote a book. A mystery novel called Little Girl Blue. I wrote that thing, and re-wrote it, and sliced it and diced it and took it apart and put it back together again. After much labor and effort and care, I wrote up a query letter and sent that baby into the world.

You will never read this book. Not ever. It’s not a bad book, not at all. I just read through it, and I’m still pretty proud of it. But it’s the wrong book. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, Little Girl Blue was not the first book that I started. There were other, sophomoric efforts that collapsed under their own weight, or shifted focus so wildly that they had the frenetic feel of seventeen novels crashing into one. These you will similarly never see. These I am not proud of. 

But LGB was different. It was the first book that I had written that was utterly and completely separate from me. It had legs and eyes and skin and hair. It had breath and hunger and thirst. It moved. And of course that’s interesting because it was the first time that I had drawn deeply from my own experience to create a fictional world. Prior to that, my main characters had been fifty year old women or aged ex-priests or drug dealers or Harley riders. My main characters were entirely not me. Indeed, fiction was my way of being not-me, of taking a break from my neurotic, complicated self. 

And, of course, I wrote a lot of crappy fiction. More stuff that you will not see.

In LGB, I wrote about a woman around my age, an ambivalent mother, wife, and teacher. And that ambivalence was crushing her. In writing this book I was trying to unpack an experience I had working at a school in Oregon that had, two years before I arrived, had Aryan Youth protests that got ugly. At this school, there were kids who were on lists, and I was told to memorize them. Kids who were known AY. Kids who were white supremicist sympathizers. Kids who were there when they should not have been. There were key words that I was to listen for and phrases that I was to report and behaviors that should be written up instantly.

At the time, I was twenty five, pregnant for the first time, married mid-way, and just barely getting by. I was in a time of transition, of saying goodbye to the life I thought I was living, and trying to embrace the life that I now had.  It took many years to be able to make sense of what happened that year – of what happened to me.

changed. And it wasn’t comfortable. The transition from single person to married person. Wonderful, sure, but uncomfortable. The transition from non-mother to mother. Uncomfortable. The realization that people can think and do terrible things – and that you’ll love them anyway. Uncomfortable. And the careful maneuvers in a closed society made crazy in its response to crazy things. Very, very, very uncomfortable.

So I explored this discomfort in the context and form of a mystery novel. I poured who I was then into the character of Abby Blue, and she, in turn, became entirely separate from me. And her story became her own story. And her book became real, true and alive.

I still really like it.

So I sent it out.

I wrote query letters and scattered them across the four winds.

I queried wildly, inappropriately, and with gusto, abandon and verve.

And I got a lot of rejections. And then I got a lot of requests to read the book. These were universally followed by another rejection. I got kind rejections and brusque rejections and impersonal rejections and form rejections that mask themselves as personalized but secretly are not. I read through my rejection notes like a medium reads tea leaves. 

I was addicted to my email. Obsessed. I would wake up three or four times a night to check if anything came. I was impossible to live with. 

Finally, an agent (I won’t give out her name, and honestly she likely doesn’t even remember her kindness to me. The best kind of kindness is that which is unaware of itself. The best kind of kindness spontaneously generates. This was the best kind of kindness) wrote me back. She was a known entity, both a mover and a shaker, and well regarded to be very good at what she does. She represented something called “up-market women’s fiction” which I still can’t entirely define (or even slightly define) but it seemed to me that Little Girl Blue qualified. I queried her. She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. Two weeks later she wrote me back.

“I’ve read your manuscript three times,” she wrote, “and I really like it. But….”

(There’s always a “but”, I thought.)

“There’s a thought that keeps creeping in, and I can’t shake it. The more I read this book – and you really did a good job. The prose is tough and resilient, the characters intricately drawn, the pacing is heart-pounding. But with each page I find myself thinking, “Right writer; wrong book.” If this was your third or fourth book, I’d likely be able to find a home for it. But it’s not the book for you to come out of the gate with. Also, I feel that this isn’t the book you were meant  to write. Write me the right book. Then send it to me.”

I was telling somebody this story recently, and she said, “Oh, that must have been so hard to hear!” But the thing is, it wasn’t. I had been querying and requerying LGB  for months.  I had stopped writing. I had stopped reading. I stared at my computer, all dead-eyes and zombie skin. It was draining my soul away. The moment I read that, I felt a terrible weight lift from my body.

That letter set me free.

The next day I started The Mostly True Story of Jack. And that was the right book. 

My mother asks me from time to time if I’ll ever try again to get LGB published. Probably not, I tell her every time she asks. Because why waste time on the wrong book when the right one is spinning itself, even now on the scribbled notes on my desk, in the stories I tell my kids in the dark, in the quiet glow of my computer, in my wide, wild mind. I’ve learned how to find the right  book – for this writer at this moment.

And for you, dear readers, I hope for the same. I hope that you also encounter a kind person who will tell you if you’ve deviated from the path that you need to be on. The path that you are.  I hope that all of you, perhaps today, will be writing the right book. 

And I hope that I will get to read it.

Things coming, things doing, and things done.

So, I have a confession to make: I have a ridiculously humungous amount of fun doing bookish events. Maybe I would feel differently if I wrote for grownups and was therefore speaking in front of audiences comprised largely of grownups. Cuz, yanno. Grownups are stodgy and a bit of a snore.

Now, I don’t want to offend any grownups reading this blog, and I really want you to know that individually I think you’re marvelous and I love you all very much. But. Let’s be serious. Kids are more fun.

I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings.

(Kids, if you’re reading this, please remember that grownups – while insufferably tiresome when collected in groups – are a sensitive, fragile lot, and you should always try to boost up their self-esteem. For example: You can tell them that they just said something smart. Or that they look terribly attractive in that sweater.)

Is there anything more awesome, I wonder, than sitting around with a bunch of kids and talking about stories? Honestly, I don’t think there is.

So, I’ve been doing some more bookish-type events lately, and I’m going to be doing some more.

For example, back in September, I was reading at Wild Rumpus Books, surrounded not only by a bunch of kids, but animals too! 



It was magnificent!

And then, just last Saturday I was at Red Balloon Bookshop. And there was cake. CAKE!

One of the perks of being trained as a teacher is that I’m pretty good at getting the kids to think of – and then actually ask- questions after my brief reading.

And their questions are always really interesting and esoteric and random and wonderful. Such as, “Thank you for reading but what are those books about?” And, “But why did you stop there? What happens next?” And, “But seriously, did you write all the words in this book all by yourself?”

That last one was asked with some incredulity.

By my own nephew, by the way. (Honestly! The respect I get around here!) (Et tu, Charlie?)

Anyway, I feel exquisitely energized by these last two readings, and I’m looking forward to the next appearances. For those of you who are interested I’ll be at the Twin Cities Book Festival this Saturday for a reading, signing and teaching two writing mini-workshops for children. Later, I’ll be at the AASL conference in Saint Paul at the end of the month, signing books. Then, on November 13, I’ll be doing a reading with Minnesota writer, extraordinaire, Anne Ursu, at the Second Story Reading Series at the Loft. And then, on December 3, I’ll be speaking at Nokomis Library, doing a reading and author chat with their youth book group, and I’m ridiculously excited about all of it.

If you’re around, come by! Say hello! Throw tomatoes! Or flower petals! Or autumn leaves! Make fun! Tell jokes! Stick around for coffee! Or whatever.

In any case, I’ll be there. Having the time of my life.

What I Write About When I Write About Magic

I didn’t mean to be a writer who writes about magic. I have, though, lived my life assuming the possibility of magic. The world, after all, is wondrous and strange. It is incongruous, grimy, chaotic and odd. And that oddness permeates the air that we breathe, and the things that we touch and learn about, and even our very skin. It is the oddness that I cannot ignore and I cannot shake. It draws me again and again, to writing stories.

For example:

When I was a little girl, I had a recurring dream that I turned into a fish. In my dream, I wandered towards the nearest lake, and waded up to my knees, then my hips, then my chest. In my dream, my skin greened, then cooled, then became shiny and slick. I slid into the water, and, with a flick of my tail, swam away, leaving my abandoned nightgown floating midway between the surface and the sand. In my dream I thought fishy thoughts and sang fishy songs and dreamed fishy dreams. When I would wake up in the morning, my nightgown – quite damp – would be in a heap on the floor, and my lips would be rounded, holding an imagined bubble midway between my mouth and the air.

Was I a girl dreaming that I was a fish, or was I a fish dreaming that I was a girl?
Did I truly wade into the green water and slip away in a glint of fin and scale?

Was it enough to believe that I was a fish in order to be a fish?

I used to think it was. We believe a thing, and it is, you see. There is, I feel, a poetry to believing. And I believed then as I believe now. I was a poet from the first.

A few years ago, I started writing a book that would later be called The Mostly True Story of Jack. I was not intending to write a book about magic. Indeed, I was not intending to write a book at all. Instead, in my daily writing practice, I encountered – quite unexpectedly – a boy and his mother in a rental car, hurdling down a narrow road in rural Iowa, watching as the land stretched and rippled from the road to the sky, like a great, green quilt.

The land is magic in Iowa. This is common knowledge. Ask anyone you like.
The boy in the car, though, was an arrestingly singular fellow – his dark hair, his wide, sober eyes, his mouth pressed into a thin, long line – and I couldn’t look away.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am no one,” the boy replied. And he meant it too. This intrigued me. How could it not?

The boy was alone. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be alone!)
The boy was invisible. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be invisible!)

I had no interest in writing a novel, but compassion made me pause. I cared about this boy, you see. I cared a lot. So I built him a world.

I wrote about Jack. I observed him and followed him. And Jack, in turn, followed me. I saw Jack as he was, and Jack saw me, as I am. (And, quite frankly, I think at times he wasn’t impressed.)

There is a strange thing that happens to people as they slog through that arduous process of novel-making. The skin of the world we live in presses against the skin of the world we create. I built a world to act as a home for Jack. I created a story to give him people to love him, a place to hold him, an opportunity for heroism. Jack, in his way, turned his magic on me, and all sorts of strange, and odd and wondrous things started happening in my life. Things that I did not expect. The world I built permeated the world in which I live. And magic abounds.

When I write about magic, I write about belief. When I write about magic, I write about possibility. When I write about magic, I write about hope and courage and philosophy and faith and friendship and this great, teeming, beautiful, unknowable Earth, this boundless universe, this beating heart. I write about all of these things together.

When I write about magic, I am more fully in the world.

We live in a world that is tricky, sinister, inexplicable, gorgeous and wonderfully, wonderfully odd. Aren’t we lucky?

(This essay originally appeared in the Little, Brown Book Buzz e-newsletter. If you’re interested in subscribing, click here.)

Secret Doors

Our dear friends, John and Mike, purchased a large, rambling house right by Lake of the Isles recently, with the intention of renovating it into what is guaranteed to be an astonishing piece of beauty. Now John is my husband’s business partner at the architectural design firm Design 45, so I had been seeing the plans to this project for a while as my husband worked on them. But I only went into the house recently.

After exploring its many back staircases and hidden rooms, we went to the basement and found the thing that is currently haunting the stories that my children whisper to one another at night.

A secret door.

A long-since boarded up secret door at the very back wall of the basement. An inch-thick rectangle of plywood has been bolted across it and covered in thick coats of gray paint again and again.

“What is this?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” John said.

“A door.” Mike said. “Or at least it was. The children of the previous owner said that it used to be connected to a tunnel that went under the road and ended in the park.”

I stared at them.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s not true,” John said.

“They said it was true,” Mike said. “I don’t know if it was so that they could access the park without having to go in the road or if it was a 1920’s speakeasy thing or what, but they were pretty sure there used to be a tunnel there.”

I was astonished. “Well, can we open it right now?” I asked.

At this point, my children were nearly hopping out of their skin. Secretdoorsecretdoorsecretdoor etched in their wilding faces. (Is wilding a word? If not, I think we should all declare it so. Wilding is giving me an inordinate amount of pleasure right now.) Their hands shook; their eyes shone; they jumped and jumped and jumped.

“There might be treasure in there!”

“Or zombies!”

“Or all the spiders ON EARTH!”

“Or zombies!”

“Or suitcases full of money.”

“Or zombies!”

“Or another world.”

“Or zombies!”

“Or magic tools.”

“Or ghosts AND vampires AND an anaconda AND zombies!” Leo was beside himself at that point. “Also, the Kraken!”

“We’re not going to open it,” Mike said.

The heads of my children collectively (and metaphorically) exploded. “WHY NOT?” they exclaimed.

Mike shrugged. “Everyone deserves a secret or two. Even a house.”

And I suppose that’s true. If they had opened the door right there and then, we would not have three weeks worth of Secret Door stories wafting through their play and their art and their dreams. We wouldn’t have the nightly requests by my son for yet another installment of “Leo Barnhill And The Mysterious Door,” of which there have been thirteen so far.

And it makes me think about my writing work as well. I don’t like reading books that open every door, that explain every little thing. I like it when the author consciously obscures the truth, when they force me to simply guess at what lies beyond the locked door. Sometimes, it’s enough to know the door exists, and what is beyond it is for me, the reader, to endlessly wonder and wonder and wonder.

In general, I hold Wonder in high regard.

There is a door – a secret door – in the basement at my friends’ house. I wonder what’s inside?

Now, as I wade through the revisions for my next book, Iron Hearted Violet, I am deliberately leaving some doors closed, some questions unanswered, some trails un-trod. Because I need to leave some space for my reader to wander. I want my readers to linger in this world I built, and to explore regions that I haven’t even thought to visit. I want my readers to wonder about the doors that I did not open, and for my story to engender new stories. And I like that idea very much.

Very much indeed.

Dreams, Signs, Wonders (Is there a difference between novel writing and clinical insanity? Probably not.)

There’s a magic thing that happens when a book takes over your life. There is….an unpinning from the world. A sense of nonbeing – or, perhaps multi-being. 

When I start a book, it feels like play. I doodle pictures of my characters, I draw maps, I try to channel their voices in journals and logs and the endless possibilities resultant from potential choices spread in every direction – like bright, hot threads stretching from my fingers to the sky.

Later, however, those possibilities begin to dwindle.

Later, the possible choices begin to thin, clear and fall away, leaving precious few paths left for our characters to take. Sometimes, our characters are left with only one path – and it is a devastating, brutal thing to do to one’s creation.

When this happens – when I am immersed in a world of my own invention, when my heart breaks again and again every time I return to the page – I experience a sense of dual existence.

I am here and not here.

I am there and not there.

I am in between.

Four days ago, I wrote a scene in which a character wakes up and sees a large crow sitting on his window sill. The boy sat up, regarded the crow, who regarded him, one shiny black eye narrowed on the boy’s heart. Later that day, when I was out for a run, I saw a large crow flying low to the ground – missing my head by inches – with a still-kicking baby duck in its beak.

I know that crow, I thought. I know that duck. 

I ran home and sank into the book.

Yesterday, I was running in Nine Mile Creek park in Bloomington – a long windy trail in a wooded ravine tracking alongside the rushing water. It was a perfect day – not too hot, the rush towards green in the plantlife, the insistence of birds. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.

The wolf, I thought. The black wolf.

black Wolf 44

And there it was. The black wolf from my book. And it was huge. Broad shouldered and ropy muscled and heavy jawed. I couldn’t move. In my head, I recited these words:

That night, I was troubled by strange dreams. I dreamed that I rode on the back of a large black wolf through a darkened wood. I hung on tightly to his course and greasy fur my nose crinkling at the rank, gamy tang to his smell, though strangely comforted by it at the same time. Above us, a red, glowing bird soared just over the tops of the trees, its mouth wide open to the sky, its song ringing against the world. What’s more, the song itself made the forest blossom – flowers opened and fruited, moss grew thick and bright around the trunks of the trees. 

“Why are we running?” I asked the wolf.

“I dare not stop, Child, not even for the moment, or the wild dogs will rip you to shreds.”

And before I could ask anything more, I heard the unmistakable bay and snarl of a pack of dogs getting closer and closer. Also unmistakable: We were slowing down.

I had just been revising that chapter not two hours earlier. Was I in the book? Was I here? Were the lines between here and there permanently blurred.  I closed my eyes. I smelled the wolf and felt the wolf and felt its breath upon my skin.

When I opened my eyes, the wolf was gone, and in its place was a dog – a labrador. Black. Its head tilted and its grin spread in that classic labrador smile. I took a step backwards and it bounded into the woods. It was then that I realized that I was holding my breath.

But I thought to the book – when Nika first encounters the wolf, and I thought about my body when I thought I saw the thing I did not see. I remembered the instant prick of sweat, the musk of fear, the breathing quickening, shallowing, until it ceases entirely. I thought about the sudden lightness of my body – that I was fully prepared to sprint the three miles back to my car, and that I would likely run without tiring, without pain, without hesitation. I thought about the terrible calm, the utter assurance that I could outrun this creature or fight it to the death if I had to, regardless of whether such things were true.

I thought about the physicality of fear. And then I re-wrote the scene.

The threads from my life weave into my book; the threads from my book weave into my life. Perhaps this is the nature of my work, perhaps I must simply accept that I live in a reality that bends, buckles and flows. Where the imagined and the real are inextricably linked – two different sections of the same, long road.

On Entropy, Accretion and Exploding Novels

There was a time in my life when I was a lot tougher than I am now. And though I was strong enough to break a man’s nose (and did once, but that is another story) that time in my life was marked – no, defined – by terrible, terrible fear.

When I was a teenager and early adult, I never feared death – which can partly explain the ridiculous risks that I took with my personal safety and well-being (walking alone through sketchy neighborhoods late at night, fist-fights, jumping off bridges for fun, dating boys who liked punching things, and etc.). I didn’t fear death at all. Now, I will heartily admit that I was (and I really and truly admit this) a certifiable idiot, which accounts for at least some of my…..misguided behavior. I was an athlete and very fast and very strong, and I somehow equated that with invincibility, with deathlessness, with indomitability.I was intoxicated with my body’s ability to preserve itself.

It wasn’t death that I was afraid of. It was decay. It was entropy. That my strength would ebb, diminish and fail. That my skin would stretch and fold and hang, that my eyes would dim and my ears would clog and my brain would muffle and cloud and fade. But mostly, I was terrified that, one day, after I had coughed and shuddered and stopped breathing forever, that every cell in my body would disassemble, disassociate, dissolve.

It was, at the time, a terrifying thought.

It wasn’t death that scared me. I knew that everything that breathed would stop, and that alive and dead were just two different sections of that same long road. I was pretty sure there was a heaven, and I was mostly sure that God had enough of a sense of humor to let me in. No, it was the corruption of the body that gave me the creeps. And kept me up at night. And haunted my dreams again and again and again.

For a long time – for much of my twenties and into my thirties – this notion of entropy of dissolution – defined much of my understanding of the world. Entropy increases, I told myself. That is the nature of living: We form; we complicate; we undo; we fade; we blow away. We don’t just fall apart; we become food.

And I accepted it, and was okay with it, because it is true. Mostly.

Last year, I participated in a yearly workshop called Launch Pad, a program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. I wrote about the experience here. Now, after listening to lectures for eight hours a day and looking through telescopes at night and reading textbooks until the wee hours before finally falling asleep in a desk chair, waking with a crick in your neck, and heading out to do it all again – for an entire week….. well, it leaves an indelible mark on a person, I’ll tell you what. I felt the metaphors upon which my understanding of the world was organized start to shift, wobble and reform.

We are all made of stardust, our professors told us. Every atom in your body, every atom that surrounds you was once part of a star. That star exploded into dust. That dust became a new star, a new system, and everything began again. Indeed, our universe, being about 13.7 billion years old, went through some pretty dynamic changes along the way before morphing into the images that we’ve all seen and loved from Hubble and other beloved telescopes.

The first stars that formed in that primordial soup of dark matter (about 100 million years or so after the Big Bang) and glowing plasma were hot and bright and brief. Live fast, die young, indeed. They exploded, sent their matter across the universe, and their atoms bound to other atoms, and more, and more until they accreted into stars. And then those stars exploded and the process started again.

The point is that the atoms that made me were not just in one stars, but more likely they were from many. And from everywhere.

I tried to explain that to my son. He thought about it for a while, and said, “You mean when Buzz Lightyear said, ‘To Infinity And Beyond’, he was talking about me?”

“Yes,” I said. Leo was thrilled.

And while the central bulge of our galaxy was formed while the universe was still very young, our own star is under five billion years old. How many other stars were born, lived and died before our own emerged?


And billions.

A star explodes and becomes dust. Another star explodes and the shock wave incites the dust to become stars. Such is the nature of things.

And I bring this up because I’m working on a book.

A book that I destroyed.

A book that I exploded.

A book that became dust, ash and wind. That became plasma and fire and energy. That was given over to the universe as an offering. A book that fell apart, bloated, liquified, decayed, jellied and became food. A book that I left for dead.

A nebula is the dusty, gassy, dissolved remains of an exploded star. It is also the dynamic womb for a forming star. It is both. I like things that can be both. There are entire universes in both.

The thing is, as far as my process goes, this is nothing new. I start books in a flurry of heat and light. They are all I can think about. They are all I can do. And then they collapse. And I need to learn to accept the collapsing. I need to learn that entropy is part of my creative process. Hell, my book that’s coming out this summer, The Mostly True Story of Jack, ground to a halt no less than twenty times while I was writing it. My book that’s appearing next year – Iron Hearted Violet –  had to sit and wait for an entire year before I could finish it.

I start books; I create universes; I foment stars, and then I blow them up and leave huge clouds of dust behind.

Last year, I’ve been suffering from an increase of entropy.

Or, it isn’t so much that I have experienced the entropy, but the book did. I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This is how I make books. I wrote The Firebirds of Lake Erie last year. Wrote the end. Hated the end. Erased the end.

Then I erased the last third.

Then I erased the last half.

Then I left it for dead.

Recently, I felt a shockwave. A jolt. The energetic pulse of an exploding supernova, half a universe away, and it knocked me out of bed and onto my knees. The book was in pieces. It was subatomic. But the tiny bits were starting to coalesce. They were starting to stick. And I think I know what to do now. The thing that was dust is becoming book. And it was good.

This makes me happy, because the other book I started last fall – Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones – suffered a similar implosion in February. So now I just have to trust that the undulating cloud of dusty novel bits will one day shudder, tremble and live. And the best thing I can do for poor Ned is to leave him be.

Change exists. Matter recombines. The Universe reinvents itself again and again and again. There is no death. There is no destruction.  There is only formation and history and newness and memory and structure and pattern and arc.  And, deep in our souls, is the unshakable knowledge every atom within us gleams with the memory of stars.


I told my son that all the matter in his body was formed when the universe was formed, and that his atoms are as old as the Big Bang. He thought about that for a while.

“You mean that I’m the same age as you?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “In a matter of speaking.”

“Well,” he said, “next time you do something naughty, I’m totally going to send you to your room.”

And another thing……

I just finished reading Genevieve Valentine’s glorious novel Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, and HOLY HECK. That novel knocked me out, down and sideways. Now, I’ll write more about it when we get closer to its release date (in May, I believe. I got to read it early because I am SOOPER SPESHAL), but in the meantime, take a look at that gorgeous cover. Then, hop over to Amazon and order you up a copy of your own. Seriously, you’ll thank me for it. And, you’re welcome.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

More Stories from the Ever-Awesome Clive

I love Clive. Millions and millions of love. Now, I know it’s very wrong of writers to pick favorites among their characters – much like parents pouring love onto particular children and ignoring the rest. And while it’s true that I love all of my characters equally, and I take their lives and their stories very, very seriously, there is something special about Clive Fitzpatrick – Professor of Literature, Expert on Ancient Texts, Practitioner of Magic, and Defender of Good.

Clive gets me.

Without Clive, my book would not have been finished. He has been my muse, my support and my swift kick in the pants.

Anyway, in the many revisions of the book, I had to remove several selections from Clive’s scholarly, philosophical and folkloric works, and each one was like ripping a piece of my soul away. Clive, when he appeared in my dreams, or in my conversations with him on the page was much more even tempered about it. He has an easier time letting go. Well, bully for him. I can’t let go.

I’m thinking more and more about taking my little selections and expanding them into actual stories. I may even try to publish it under Clive’s name. Because I think he deserves it. Not that he’s my favorite or anything. He’s just……special. Extra special. Here’s a bit from one of his stories:

Once, there was a boy who looked like a boy and spoke like a boy and thought like a boy, but was not a boy at all. His parents, unaware of the non-boyness of their beautiful child, strapped shoes on feet that were meant to be bare and tethered him with baby carriers and swaddling and five-point harnesses to keep him from flying away.

You are our little boy,” his parents cooed as they buttoned his jacket, although the buttons turned to bugs, which turned to butterflies, which flew prettily out the open window. They pretended not to notice. They closed the window, and the shades, and the drapes.

You are our little boy,” his parents sang as they strapped him into a pram, which sprouted flowers, grass, and a crystal spring. They told the neighbors it was a garden ornament. They entered it into a neighborhood beautification contest and received an Honorable Mention.

The boy resisted. He fluttered, he heated, he trembled with magic and rage and frustration. But eventually came to love his parents and his home and his life. And eventually, he believed he was a boy, and called himself a boy.

But the boy would grow. And with growing comes knowing. Even a child knows that.

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick


So we nixed THE BOY WITHOUT A FACE, and then it was JACK BE QUICK, followed by THE CURIOUS FACE IN THE CORNFIELD. Shortly after that, we played with MAGIC UNDERGROUND, then UPROOTED, then THE SECRET HISTORY OF HAZELWOOD, then A CHILD OF EARTH AND MAGIC then THE WORLD UNDER THE WORLD, then THE UNVANISHING OF JACK and THE BOY WHO DISAPPEARED. And then we went and picked something entirely different, and my book now has an official title.

Drum roll, please……..

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK.   Now, really, Kelly. Was that so hard?



A Great Reluctance

You know in Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo – and then Frodo – are asked to hand over the Ring, and they are overcome and kind of crazed by a sudden unwillingness to part with the wretched thing, despite how it has taken over their lives and made them miserable?

I am in my last bits of Novel edits. The last little things before My Dear Editrix sends the manuscript off to copy editing. And as difficult as the last few months have been, despite the sheer number of times that I’ve bashed my head against the keyboard and torn drafts to shreds and delayed relaxation and having fun and life in general, and the number of times that I’ve seriously considered setting my hair on fire……despite ALL THAT……*sigh*  I just don’t want to let it go.

And I’m dragging my feet. And I’m trying to find major problems that are going to need a month at least to fix. But no. I’m going to have to send my little book into its next phase. And I’m panicking.

Once more, into the breach

I have now, hopefully for the last time, received a letter from my editor – this one more of an amalgamation of notes and feedback from several editors at my Beloved Publishing House (all this time on my little ole book? Aw….you shouldn’t have) – and it is several pages long. Which means that I will be cutting text. A lot of it.

Once again, I’ll be removing characters – three of them this time – but it’s not as painful as before. They were, my Ladies of the Knitting League – simply evil henchmen and iconic stand-ins for the Macbethian witches that all good readers hold closely and dear to their hearts. I’m sad to see them go, but I understand that their presence in my book is not entirely necessary, and I can find other mechanisms to weave in the reveals currently held by those dearly wicked Ladies.

But, as a project, to remind myself that these passages of text, these cut characters, need not have died in vain, I am going to start posting the cut bits as a memorial to the amputated novel bits everywhere – their prosaic pulse slowly dessicating in the sea of binary bits of novelish computers.

So, without further ado, a cut section. This was my old opening, and it was actually an excerpted section from a book of fairy tales written by one of my characters, an old professor who knows more than he lets on. I apologize to you, Clive, for removing your story from my story. Here it is for the world to see:

“In those days it was not uncommon for children to be stolen by fairies, or fairies stolen by children, or human children swapping places with fairy children by accident, their over worked and under paid parents simply forgetting to check and mistaking one for the other. It happens. But no one ever gave up their own child. No one ever offered their own flesh and bone for a swap. This was unheard of. Well, almost unheard of.

Once there was a man who learned magic. After five years of study, he learned how to make one coin into two, and how to make one hundred coins into two hundred. These he did not share and became very rich and reasonably happy. The magic did not notice. After fifteen years of study, he learned how to alter the weather, and by controlling the weather, he could control the farms, and by controlling the farms, he ruled the land. He felt like a king and the man was happy. For a while. The magic still did not notice. Then, after thirty years of study, the man learned something else entirely. He learned of the movement of magic between the center of the earth and the stars. He learned how to find the points of magic, how to split them apart, separate the good from the bad. This, the magic noticed, which is to say, the fairy who guarded the magic noticed. The man offered a swap. My son for your son. And then things started going very wrong.”
-Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), By Clive Fitzpatrick