Create Your Perfect Routine

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A sample six-week supply from my shelf.

 

Last July, I received my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. One piece of the graduation requirement was that we read and provide an annotated bibliography for at least ten books a month (more, if the books were short). In order to make this happen, I would wake up at 5:30 every morning to get a jump on the day. It actually wasn’t that hard. I really like reading, and I really like coffee, so if there is anything that it going to get me out of bed early, it is the promise of coffee and a book. This was especially true if the book was something I had already started, and couldn’t wait to finish. A year after graduation, I still get up at 5:30 to read. I’ve kept the habit. Why wouldn’t I? Coffee! Reading! Quiet!

This morning, I began re-reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Our brains rely on habits, it seems, as an adaptive mechanism. This is why we don’t need to think about how to walk every time we get out of a chair. Our body already knows how to balance, and how to propel itself forward—we don’t need to monitor every movement of our bodies, the way a toddler does, every time we want to get from one place to another. Duhigg refers to the way habits are formed as a habit loop. We receive a cue, we perform the habit, we receive a reward. If you want to form a new habit, or replace an old one, this is the way to do it. My morning routine is a classic example: The alarm goes off (cue), I get out of bed (habit), start a load of laundry (habit), put the oatmeal on for breakfast (habit), make my coffee (habit), then sit down to sip the coffee and read (reward).

Habit loops can be used to establish any habit you’re interested in. Want to exercise more? Decide your cue (after I drop my daughter at school, for example), insert your habit, and then figure out a reward (the gym has a sauna, which is a particularly awesome reward in January). Want to establish a regular writing time? Same thing: cue, habit, reward. I am convinced that this is part of why people who have morning writing or exercise routines are so regular about them: the cue is the same every day. It’s like brushing your teeth. You don’t endlessly debate whether you’re “in the mood to brush,” do you? You don’t need to feel inspired to get out the Crest. You just do it because you always do it. You don’t think about it. Once you have to think about it, you’re sunk.

So figure out your writing/creating cue. Is it your lunch break? Is it a day of the week? Then figure out your reward. It can be as simple as making note of your page count and giving yourself a mental pat on the back. Or it can be a cup of coffee. Or a walk. Anything you like. Figure it out, and then let your habits run your life. They tend to run it, anyway.

What are the habits that work for you?


The Hardest Two Sentences

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My agent just asked me for a two- to three-sentence synopsis of my next book. Uggg. Anyone who has ever tried this exercise knows how excruciating it is. This is the essence of the dreaded “elevator pitch,” in which you must “sell” someone on your “concept” in the length of time it would take to ride an elevator. The idea behind the name is, presumably, to imagine that you are trapped in a soundproof box with an important executive, and you have only until (s)he gets off on her/his (top) floor to sell her/him on your idea. Naturally, if I were ever really trapped in an elevator with an influential executive, I would probably do what most people do, which is to stare silently at the floor numbers as they change, ignoring everyone around me until the ride is over.

Writers are not, generally speaking, people who love to sell. We are people who love to sit alone in a room, dreaming or reading or maybe having a snack. We are, as a group, shy and self-conscious, and pitching our stories sounds like self-aggrandizement, which kind of gives us hives. Also, who can boil a novel down to two sentences? Only people who haven’t read the novel, that’s who. DEFINITELY not someone who dreamed it up, particularly if said person hasn’t finished it yet.

Nonetheless, that was the assignment.

So I googled it. And what did I find? “How to Write a Book Blurb” returned 1,460,000 results. There are, apparently, “4 Easy Steps” and “5 Core Elements” and “8 Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb.” Suddenly, I was even more overwhelmed than I had been before. Unfortunately, none of these sites offer a “blurb/ synopsis generator,” which is what I really wanted. Type in a few names, and presto!

So I have come up with my own Mad Lib version. Feel free to use this.

Everything has changed for [Name of protagonist], ever since the [inciting incident] that [situation]. Now, [gendered pronoun] must [goal] before [name of antagonist] stops [gendered pronoun].

So let’s take The Wizard of Oz, for example. That formula up there would yield: Everything has changed for Dorothy, ever since the twister that carried her to the magical world of Oz. Now, she must find the powerful wizard who can send her home before the Wicked Witch of the West stops her.

For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s: Everything has changed for Charlie, ever since he found the golden ticket that will allow him inside the mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory. Now, he must explore the magical, dangerous factory before the factory itself stops him.

For Goodnight, Moon, it’s: Everything has changed for the rabbit ever since the moon came out. Now he must say good-night to everything in the room before sleep stops him.

See how perfectly that works? Now, writing your blurb will take mere seconds. I should make an app!

Unfortunately, it’s always different when it’s your own book. So far, it has taken as many revisions to my blurb–back and forth with my agent–as it took for me to write my entire last novel. Oh, well. I’ll let you know if she ever approves it. Meanwhile, you’re welcome to the Mad Lib.

 


When You’re Ready To Toss The Whole Thing Into The Fire

 

Recently, a friend asked on facebook if other people ever experienced a moment at which they hated their own story, the story they had poured months or even years into. Did anyone else ever reach a moment when they wondered why they had ever gotten themselves into this mess, what they had been thinking when they started, when they doubted not just scenes or sentences, but the entire project itself.

The consensus?

Yes. Oh, yes.

When you are a writer, or an artist of any kind, you have to learn to separate your feelings about the work from the work itself. Feelings are like waves. They rise and fall—one moment you are riding high, another you are at the nadir, with a curl cresting above you, ready to smash your boat to smithereens. These thoughts that we have about ourselves and our work—I’m a genius! This is brilliant! This is horrible! I’m doomed!—are simply thoughts. They come and go as the craft chugs steadily on. It’s important to recognize thoughts for what they are. They are not reality. You do not have to pay attention to them. You have to pay attention to the work.

Which begs the question, how do we keep going when our thoughts are so terrifying and upsetting? Well, my dears, why would you head out to sea when you know a storm is brewing? If you don’t have to, then perhaps you should wait for the storm to pass. Put the project away for a few days, and then read one page. See how you feel about it. If the evil thoughts and feelings have passed, then get to work.

Another option would simply be to go out into the storm, knowing that the weather will be choppy. Friends, if you are going to do this, then you must batten down the hatches. Close the craft off from the effects of the storm; don’t let the water in. Pay close attention to the craft itself and steer it with all of your concentration while ignoring the waves. Are you getting my metaphor? I’m telling you that the only way to get back to work is to say to yourself: These thoughts won’t kill my story. They may rage all around, but they can’t sink me unless I let them.

Even the worst storms end, and what will be left is you and the work. Don’t think. Just write.


Movers and Shakers

 

 

 

The other day, as I sat in a lawyer’s office, a real estate agent told me that I was a “mover and a shaker.” That’s a term that gets batted around a lot, usually in reference to politicians and/ or businesspeople. I always used it that way…until recently. Because, guess what? That’s wrong. WAY wrong.

The term “movers and shakers” comes from the poem “Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. (That’s Arthur, in the pic above.) Never heard of “Ode?” I’ll bet you have and didn’t realize it. The poem opens with the lines, “We are the music-makers,/And we are the dreamers of dreams” (1-2). Many artists know that line; it’s about us. And that opening stanza ends with, “Yet we are the movers and shakers/ Of the world for ever, it seems” (7-8).

Whaaaaaaaaaat? Yes, my friends. Movers and shakers are ARTISTS. But–how? Check out these lines: “One man with a dream, at pleasure/ Shall go forth and conquer a crown;/ And three with a new song’s measure/ Can trample an empire down” (14-17). It is about both the fact that artists create worlds in their work, and the fact that this art can influence and change reality. Too often, the world acts as if art is of dubious value. “Dreamers” they call us, as if that’s something bad. But this world is built on dreams. As Joseph Campbell points out in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamic of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions sown are directly valid for all mankind.” In other words, myths are a reflection of our the human dream. Stories and art connect us to a reality that is deeper than the reality we experience every day, deeper than real estate and lawyer’s offices. As Clive Barker points out in Writers Dreaming (by Naomi Epel), “As a child you are given dream time as part of your fictional life. Into your hands go the books of dream travel, Dorothy’s dream travel, the Darling family’s dream travel in Peter Pan, the children of Narnia…. And then at the age of five or something like that, they start to teach you the gross national product of Chile.” Right. We are taught that “reality” is all that matters. But reality is, of course, a point of view.

So, dreamers, to you I say this: Keep on moving and shaking.

 


Celebrate the Struggle!

Last week, I went to a publishing party. Now, I’ve been to a lot of book launch parties, publishing parties, mixers, and whatnot. The authors are always nervous and excited, and often the readings give you a bit of insight into the author’s struggle to capture meaning on the page. But I have never been to an event that so perfectly reflected the pure joy of creation, the absolute pride of achievement that was this event.

Did I mention that the publishing party was for my daughter’s class? Actually, it was for the entire first grade. Every single child had created at least one book—an illustrated story with a beginning, middle, and end—but many had more. Zara had many, most of which were hilarious nonfiction first-person accounts of our fall trip to Disney World. (At the time, I thought that the trip was expensive. I see now that it was money well spent.) The children squirmed in their seats as proud parents streamed in to look at their creation. Zara read to me from her stories, then insisted that I go and listen to books by her friends. My daughter’s teacher explained that, in previous years, the teachers had typed up the stories and cleaned up the grammar and spelling. But I loved the awkward, inventive turns of phrase and creative spelling. Zara’s stories really reflected her struggle to write, the challenge of creation. I loved the fact that it wasn’t perfect. The imperfections made it wonderful.

Now, of course, professional writers are held to a different standard. I can’t really get away with spelling mermaid “mremad,” as my daughter did. Then again, I need to remember that we all struggle in different ways. It’s important to take pride in your achievements, no matter where you are in your quest to tell your story. Every step along the writing journey brings us closer to what we hope to achieve. And, as it is a journey without an end, we must take joy in the travel. What I’m saying is that you deserve a publishing party. You deserve it right now. Celebrate the struggle.


Ten Years Later . . .

Life is just full of surprises.

Ten years ago, I co-wrote a novel called M or F? with Chris Tebbetts. It’s a modern Cyrano tale, updated with internet and a gay main character. Also, it’s hilarious, if I do say so myself, which I do. Marcus and Frannie are best friends, and when Franny needs help chatting online with her crush, Marcus rescues her with witty banter and fast typing. But, after a while, Marcus begins to fall for the crush, and wonders just who this guy is really in to—Marcus or Franny? It’s a comedy of errors, and Chris and I fully expected everyone to love it and congratulate us for writing a book featuring a gay teen that wasn’t about what a “problem” it was to be gay and for being so insightful about the difference between person and persona and blah, blah, blah. But that’s not what happened.

Sure, M or F? got good reviews—good, not great. It didn’t get on any influential lists. It wasn’t even named to the ALA Rainbow List—a list specifically highlighting books with gay characters. All in all, it was pretty much ignored. So, naturally, I assumed that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was, and that I should probably go crawl into a hole and throw dirt on myself. Interestingly, though, the book didn’t disappear. Because—surprise, surprise—teens actually loved it and thought it was funny. So they recommended it to each other, and thanks almost entirely to word-of-mouth, the book has stayed in print for ten years. Every spring and fall, I get a small check that reminds me that sometimes a book takes a while to find its audience.

And then came another surprise—a few months ago, Chris called me up and told me that Vermont Pride Theater wanted to stage a workshop production of M or F?  They wanted to know if they could have the rights. Naturally, I said of course, I would love it. As the time of the performance neared, reporters began contacting me and articles began to appear about the show. They talk about M or F? as a play exploring gender roles in the age of social media. They talk about how contemporary it is, and how the teens in the production really feel represented. They really see what we were trying to do. And now I realize that the problem is not that the book wasn’t good enough. The problem is that the book was ahead of its time

The performance is set for tomorrow night. Here are some articles about how great it’s going to be:

http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/young-adult-novel-m-or-f-staged-for-vermont-pride-theater/Content?oid=2507493

http://www.vt-world.com/vermont-pride-theater-puts-on-cyrano-de-bergerac-tale-with-a-twist.html

http://www.ourherald.com/news/2015-01-15/Front_Page/Chandler_To_Stage_M_or_F.html

A novel is like a baby. When you put it out into the world, you want people to love it. You want them to see in it the same things that you do. Finally, I feel like they do.

My little baby is all grown up.


How to Quit

 

A while back, I read a little book—very short, maybe 80 pages—by Seth Godin called The Dip. This is about the long, hard slog to success that comes between beginner’s luck and real success. He talks about how successful people often have to be very strategic about what they choose to pursue and what they let go.

When I started as a professional writer, my husband predicted that I would have to come up with five good, well-developed proposals before I sold one. I have no idea where he got that number. I think he made it up; he’s a businessman, and he was just giving me a basic business number—only 20% of your stuff is going to be successful. So I developed five fully fleshed out proposals, including sample chapters. I even wrote a full manuscript for one of the ideas. And guess what? I sold number five. What happened to the rest? They’re stashed somewhere on my computer. I don’t think they’re coming out of that file. I quit on them, but that’s okay. As I always tell my friends, “I’ve got a lot of ideas, and not all of them are winners.” The truth is, I didn’t want to spend a year developing each one of them, and it’s good I ditched them early. I didn’t love them enough. The only one I really loved is the one that sold, which became Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me. There’s another that’s sort of “the one that got away.” I might try to get back together with that one, someday. When we’re both ready.

Another thing I’ve had to quit is a bunch of extra-curriculars. For example, I love volunteering. Lately, my husband has been suggesting that we should go to our daughter’s school PTO meeting. I keep telling him no way, because I know what will happen. I’ll raise my hand and volunteer to run some giant fundraiser. Seriously, I can’t help myself. Everything sounds like fun to me, and I always like helping out, so I simply can’t be trusted at a single meeting, because the time for any new projects I take on will have to come out of time that I could be writing, or with my family. I have limited time, and I like to use the surplus for Zumba.

Here is the secret: It’s okay to quit. Even Seth Godin thinks it’s okay to quit. You just have to quit the right way. You can’t quit when the going gets tough, or when you’re frustrated.  You must decide IN ADVANCE and UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES YOU WILL QUIT. Don’t make the decision to quit in a moment of pain, like when you’re at page 100 of your work-in-progress and you’re starting to doubt the whole thing.

I have a friend who, at the start of a project, writes herself a letter to be opened during her Dip. The letter says, basically, “This novel is a good idea. You have the talent to write it. Keep at it; don’t give up.” It talks about all the reasons that she needs to write the story. The moment she’s hit with the desire to chuck the whole manuscript, she dives into that letter, and it helps her get back on track.

This is not the same as giving up on an idea that simply isn’t ever going to work. As I said earlier, I’ve abandoned a lot of ideas. Early and often, that’s my motto. Not everything deserves to be a book, and not everything that does deserve to be a book is something that I want to write. You must quit in order to truly commit. I had to let go of my mediocre ideas to commit to the good one. There is a difference between quitting one thing so that you can focus on another, and simply giving up on a dream.

Don’t give up on a dream. So go write yourself a letter. Tell yourself what you want to commit to. Then see what you need to quit in order to make it happen.

 


I Like Big Books

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One of my odd little hobbies is reading books on the craft of writing. I love them. I don’t read them looking for answers, I just read them because I like to think about reading and writing. It’s like “talking shop” with fellow authors. Oh, is that how she does it? I’ll think as I read along. Interesting! 

I like to get up early, ideally 5 am. Then I can sip tea and read while the house is quiet and dark. Lately, I have been reading The Writer’s Portable Mentor. Priscilla Long spends a lot of space writing about words, the value and the fun of them. As Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” People don’t generally think of humor writers as people who are careful with language, but believe me when I tell you that the difference between a laugh and the sound of crickets often hangs on a single word.

Anyway, Ms. Long suggested that I get a dictionary, and I was delighted by the idea. The Writer’s Portable Mentor recommends the 1934 Second Edition of Merriam-Webster. “The sensible, cost-conscious, and ever so reasonable editors of the Third Edition dumped out 100,000 words,” Ms. Long notes. Hah! Well, I don’t want that! I am NOT reasonable, and therefore, nothing but the Second Edition would do! I went online and ordered it right away. The online images showed a dictionary that seemed to be in good shape. It was pretty expensive, but I justified it this way: I’m a writer! I need it! I’m a grown up! I want it! Gimme!!!!

When my book arrived, I wondered two things: 1) why is this box so large? and 2) why is this box so heavy?

Uh, the answer is: BECAUSE THIS BOOK IS HUUUUUGE.

It’s huge and it smells nice, like an old book, which is appropriate. I *love* it. My husband teases me, but this thing is incredible. I love paging through dictionaries and thesauruses. It’s much better than doing an online search. Online searches are fast, but they are no good for aimless wandering. There’s a word for someone who walks about, idly noticing things: flaneur. With my mega-dictionary, I am a Word Flaneur. I am picking up words here and there and putting them in my pocket. Ebulition, frangible, agathodaimon, mullock. I’m finding out new definitions of familiar words I thought I knew, like genius. And there are helpful, beautiful illustrations throughout. Like this one, of poisonous plants:

 

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Isn’t that FUN? You never know when you’ll need this information!

I’m a book person, and I guess I’ll always be one. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love my kindle. But, in some ways, a paper book is even more interactive than an electronic one. Mine not only has a good smell and encourages me to find new words, it also builds some serious upper body strength.

That’s something you never get from a kindle.


Heroes

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Years ago, when I was a young associate editor, I went to the national SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. I wore my favorite outfit: A black skirt, a top with a bunch of pictures of vegetables on it (dishtowel chic), and a bubble watch filled with water and sparkles (like a snow globe) that I had purchased at a toy store. (I’ve always had a “unique” sense of style.) At the conference, I met a well-known author who was charming and funny, and when he saw my watch, he said, “Oh, that’s so great! We have to show Paula!”

“Paula” was Paula Danziger, author The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, The Pistachio Prescription, and many other of my favorite novels from adolescence. Her books had a permanent place in my heart; I badly wanted to meet her, but I felt shy. Too shy. For the remainder of the conference, I carefully avoided both her and the author who had offered to introduce us, escaping before I could meet her. In the back of my mind was the thought that I would meet Paula another time. Maybe when I was more influential. When I was “somebody.”

But Paula died tragically and unexpectedly at the age of 59. I never met her. I never had the opportunity to tell her how much her books meant to me, or to simply enjoy being in her presence. For years, I have regretted missing my chance. But that missed opportunity taught me something, and so, this past July, when Vermont College of Fine Arts hosted an auction and put “Lunch with Katherine Paterson” on the docket, my friend Heather Demetrios and I jumped to bid on it. Heather is a fellow writer, and we both felt too shy to chat with the author of The Great Gilly Hopkins, Bridge to Terabithia, and Jacob Have I Loved by ourselves. Between the two of us, though, we felt we could manage to prop up our end of lunch and conversation an icon.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of sitting down to sushi with Katherine and Heather. We chatted about life, writing, family, life abroad, the publishing industry, art, and poetry. We talked for two hours, and only got up when our cars were about to be towed. Katherine was charming and funny, honest and generous. To say that she was down-to-earth would be an understatement. I know I will always treasure that meeting.

It turns out that waiting around to be “somebody” was a terrible decision. I always was was somebody. And now I’m somebody who had a terrific lunch with a really fascinating person.

Lucky me.


Up For It: The 777 Challenge

 

Well, well, well. Another challenge is upon us, is it? This time, it’s personal.

Well, actually, it’s kinda professional. My good friend Heather Demetrios threw down the 777 Challenge, which is especially for writers. It’s a dare to post the first full seven lines of a current work in progress, on page seven, seven lines down. I don’t often accept dares, because I am lazy. However, as this one required only cutting and pasting from a Word document, I was game. 

This excerpt is from A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic. It’s technically still “in progress,” because the revision process isn’t over, but HarperCollins has scheduled it for publication in December, 2015. It’s the story of two girls–one in the United States and one in Pakistan–who each find a copy of a mysterious book. Whenever they write in it, their words also appear half a world away, adding to a story written by an invisible narrator. The stories begin unspooling madly, connecting the girls to each other and uniting their futures in ways they could not have imagined.

So, here is the excerpt:

The room smelled like clean, old things. White linens lay crisp across the bed. She walked over and scanned the books on the shelves. They didn’t seem to be arranged in any order. Paperbacks and hardcovers co-mingled, with a title about art seated beside a cheap crime novel. A leather bound book with gold lettering on the spine caught her eye. The Exquisite Corpse, it said. Kai pulled it out. She didn’t mind creepy titles.

I hereby challenge Jo Knowles, Pablo Cartaya, Kieran Scott, Heather Abel, Helen Perelman, Kiki Thorpe, Nerissa Nields!