Bird by bird-ing it

It happened: I got the editorial letter for my children’s novel on Monday. It’s fifteen pages long (“we always give very extensive notes,” the editor warned me) and comes with a deadline in mid-January, a couple weeks after I have a column due and a week before I give a big lecture. And through it all I am working-full time, driving out of state for Christmas, and trying to keep up a fabulous lifestyle of staying mostly awake.

It’s not that I didn’t know the letter was coming. I handed in the first draft the Monday before Thanksgiving and then waved a turkey leg in the air to celebrate. Obviously some kind of tryptophan amnesia ensued, followed by jetlag and then a mild case of seasonal tinsel trance, because here I was sailing along Holidillydallying and feeling things were under control, until boop went the email and I remembered I have a novel to work on. A novel full of people with undeveloped emotional arcs! And now they are calling to me, their voices full of (unexplained) sadness, begging me to come back and give them terrible early childhoods and stuff.

But you know, I think I’ve got this. I have to keep remembering revision is one of the most bird-by-bird processes of writing. Some of the revisions amount to reworking several pages; others are a matter of adding a sentence or two, or changing a name. There are things I can do when I only have an hour free. When I was working on changes to The Wilder Life I figured out how to manage the workload using the magic of office supplies, and I’m doing it again with this project. And because I’m a dork, I’ll show you.

Here’s the hard copy of my first draft, stuck in a binder. I work onscreen, but it’s awfully handy to have the hard copy at my side, since the page numbers in my editor’s notes refer to this draft, and when I start making changes, things will shift. I added some stick-on index tabs that let me go straight to a chapter as well. It’s a little bit of a pain to set up, but it saves a lot of flipping around later.

My editorial letter includes a set of notes organized by chapter. I printed up those notes on some colored paper (goldenrod!) and then cut out each note or direction and taped it to the relevant page, usually near the paragraph in question. I tape the notes with Magic tape on the back of the page and then fold them over.  It’s similar to the way we used to attach manuscript notes at my own editorial job, back before we were all using Track Changes in MS Word. If I really wanted to be old-school I could attach the notes with STRAIGHT PINS, which is what the old editions of Chicago Manual of Style say to do. HARDCORE.

It’s a little tedious doing all the cutting and taping, but since you’re being so hands-on with the manuscript, it really gives you an opportunity to review the notes right alongside the text.

The point of using Magic tape is that when you’ve made the changes each little note calls for in the Word file on your computer, then you can just pull it off the manuscript hard copy. And then ritually burn it. Or whatever. And then you keep going, dealing with notes, in whatever order you like, taking care of the little ones when you only have an hour to work, the bigger ones when you have a whole evening. And you just keep going until there are no more notes Magic-taped to the manuscript in your dopey binder.

And then you will celebrate. Or I will, about a month from now. Here I go.


Do you see what I mean about the Munich airport?

This life coach/therapist I was seeing for a while this past year insisted I stop saying that doing certain things was HARD, since it’s supposed to be actually harder when you think of stuff as hard, and easier when you think of it as easy. I have found this to be mostly true.

Yet I am feeling lately that revising this book is seriously NOT EASY, even though I know it is not as hard not-easy as completing the first draft, all three-hundred-something pages of it, which I did at the end of February one night when I stayed up really, really late. Remember that? And then I woke up Chris to tell him I was done? And then I had some wine? That was awesome. But everything up to that point was not easy.

And then after I sent it off I had other uneasy things to do, like my taxes (then again, I have an accountant to do the seriously hard stuff, and I can call that hard if I’m not even remotely qualified to do it, right? Also, I deducted a butter churn. No, really.), traveling to Italy for work (of course I will not complain about the Italy part, but the physical travel part isn’t exactly a breeze. Look at that soulless airport corridor! And on the flight I had to watch New Moon!), and doing a 5K (which, okay, transcends the hard/easy spectrum on account of being so painful yet hilarious yet pathetic yet triumphant). So I don’t know why revising the book is harder—excuse me, “harder”—than other stuff I’ve done lately. But I will try to break it down for you:

  • Sometimes my editor’s notes ask What do you mean by this sentence? which opens up a nice shiny k-hole in which I try to figure out what she means by “what do I mean” as well as what I meant originally  and how can I make this sentence I wrote seven months ago about eating toast mean more meaningfully to convey what I mean? I mean, it’s toast. Toast! Maybe you should just tell me what you want me to mean and I’ll mean it, okay?
  • I work to classical music on internet radio, because it’s non-distracting yet lively, and it makes me feel fancy and smart and twatty, except there’s only about three stations on iTunes that I really like (i.e., no opera or “modern classical guitar”), and yet they run the worst commercials ever, the most horrible mood-puncturing ear-spam that HONKS at you about CELTR*XA FOR STRETCH MARKS and CREDIT REPORTS and GET RIPPED NOW, and while I understand that ads are sometimes necessary, these commercials don’t even try to make any of this stuff sound even remotely like a good idea, it’s just all HERBAL SUPPLEMENT and BURN FAT and TUCKER MAX MOVIE and POUND FINGERS FLAT WITH HAMMER and other things nobody anywhere would ever go for. So I hate it when I’m writing away and listening to this string-quartet-something-or-other chirping along and everything’s great and then suddenly ACAI BERRY BELLY FAT CAR ALARM SYSTEM CALL NOW BLARK BLARK BLARK bursts forth. It happens about three hundred thousand times a day, so you’d think I’d be used to it, but I am not.
  • There is supposed to be a third thing here but I forgot. What was it? Where are my notes? I think I meant to use part of that section I cut from another draft but it’s in another file and I think I re-saved it under a different name, “toast2,” and I bet if I check the backup system I can find an earlier version and this is taking 25 minutes and PROACTIV FAT BLASTER BRAP BRAP BRAP.

On the bright side, we have a final official title and subtitle, which is The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.  We also have a cover draft (which I can’t show you yet, but it’s very pretty) and a tentative publication date for next spring. I know that sounds like forever in human time, but in publisher marketing time it’s about half an hour, and a jam-packed half-hour at that.

I’ll try to be back here again before summer starts, but for now, I have to get back to this:

Flagged manuscript

(Bonus: click on the photo to read about my helpful/dorky flag system. This is when I first started; there are fewer flags now.)

Have a good weekend!

The Launch of Love

Love Is a Four-Letter Word To celebrate the release of Love is a Four-Letter Word, Michael Taeckens, our esteemed anthology editor, is the Guest Blogger over at the Penguin Blog this week, and today I was the Guest Blogger Guest with my post about the bizarre side effects of writing about past boyfriends. Go ye forth and read as I do Michael’s bloggy bidding.*

And then read D.E. Rasso’s post from yesterday (yes HER, from here! and now she’s back!) and then for the rest of the week read the posts that Said Sayrafiezadeh and Dave White and Maud Newton are going to write! And then buy the book and read the book but I already told you that, right? Or come to one of the reading, like the one I already told you about on Wednesday night, or this one on Thursday or one of the other eight or nine readings. See how we are trying to make it as easy as possible for you to comply, just like with the digital TV conversion?

*Doing stuff for Michael Taeckens is just like when he and I were in college in Iowa City and he worked at the Haunted Bookshop and he was CONSTANTLY asking me to go get him food from the  New Pioneer Co-Op deli next door because he was too lazy to ever make his own lunch. The guy can get Kate Christensen and Junot Diaz and Gary Shteyngart and Linda Barry and my girl Jami to be in his book,  but he could not get his shit together to bring a sandwich EVER and in fact I’m pretty sure the only reason why I got to be in this book is because I never said bitch, get your own turkey avocado with extra sprouts. Not to his face at least. But of course the moral of the story is to just do what he says.

Okay, heading out to NYC in the morning, and then on Friday making a trip upstate to see La Casa de Farmer Boy.  I’ll try to save you some pancakes!!!!

Til you get enough summer

I was away for half the weekend, but I got back in time to catch a little of this weird and totally-awkward-to-watch author meltdown on Twitter yesterday.  I can’t say I know what Alice Hoffman was thinking (did she just not get that people read Twitter?), but I feel bad for her, that whatever kind of writerly wretchedness she was experiencing happened to be broadcast all over the internet. Oh well, when all the newspaper book reviews go away, maybe she’ll want advice for dealing with crappy online reviews, and then perhaps she can read this Buzz, Balls, & Hype blog post that Jami and I contributed to back in January (and somehow I never managed to link to it before now) about how not to let Amazon reviews get to you.  I don’t know, I guess writers had somewhat different coping skills before the internet, back when you didn’t get to see reviews in other city newspapers until your publisher found them and clipped them and sent them to you via stagecoach* mail delivery. Now it’s all so much more immediate, and the immediacy goes both ways.

(*Can you tell I’m watching a lot of Little House on the Prairie lately? Remember when Laura won some big writing contest and went to Minneapolis and her publisher wanted her to completely rewrite her books, so they stuck her in a hotel and made her work there because FedEx hadn’t been invented yet?  That’s totally how publishing worked in those days! And then authors were sent off to live in sod shanties for three months while the reviews came out so that they couldn’t recklessly telegraph their vitriolic responses! Really.)

As long as we’re talking about books, you should check out my friend Dave Reidy’s story collection, Captive Audience, which is his first book, and he is just now embarking on a grueling schedule of readings and Quimby’s karaoke parties and no doubt would love any support you can give (i.e., buying the book, coming to the reading, signing up to sing “9 to 5,” etc.).

I can’t believe it’s the middle of summer already. Because of all the work I have to do in my home office this summer, I broke down and got an air conditioner for that room. I tend to hate window air conditioners for the way they make noise, ruin a perfectly good view outside, and just sit there on the windowsill threatening to tip out and kill pedestrians on the sidewalk below. But somehow this year I really love this damn thing; I love that slightly musty air-conditioner scent that it has, because it comes with all kinds of sense memories of grade-school summer vacation. Basically my home office smells like NO SCHOOL FOR THREE MONTHS. I don’t know how that’s going to affect my work ethic, but I am digging it.

Finally, I’m totally late to the elegy party, but here’s how I’ve been breaking my own heart for the past four days…

…by watching all of Michael Jackson’s early low-tech videos. Like the one above and this one.  There’s no John Landis, no gazillion-dollar budget, no fourteen-minute prologue, but holy Jacko, look how exuberant he looks. And look at how funky his moves were! I know everyone loved his moonwalk, but I’m pretty wistful for this era when he was decidedly more earthbound.

How it was

Hall 30

People keep asking me if I’m jetlagged, but I’m pretty sure I’m not, at least not in the sense that my body thinks it’s 3 pm in the middle of the night. However it does seem like it’s reverted to some kind of Central Standard Tired As All Hell time zone, so who knows what it’s thinking right now. Spring forward, fall back, stumble around after being in flight for twelve hours. That’s how it goes, I guess.

I had a great time in Italy, even though the language barrier turned me into a bashful nitwit who responded to retail transactions by silently handing over the largest denomination of Euros currently available in my wallet. Kind of like a wealthy, awkward, gigantic Hello Kitty. It was a very good thing that my cousin Meg, who speaks Italian and lived there for years, was around to help me out, because even with a phrasebook I am really useless. I was stricken with this hideous shyness that made me want to just inconspicuously mutter all the grazies and buongiornos, only to discover that it’s actually exceedingly hard to mumble in Italian.  So I went around with my purse full of change and only very occasionally sputtering something out loud, and I survived, and clearly I am not going to be writing the next Eat, Pray, Love anytime soon now, am I? Right!

I spent the first part of the week in Bologna attending the Children’s Book Fair for work and seeing how the rest of the world publishes kids’ books. The fair attracts hundreds of international illustrators who exhibit their work and show off their portfolios, and it was deeply mind-blowing to see it all, because European children’s books often look wildly different from American and British ones. In a nutshell: British and U.S. children’s picture books tend to show cuddly bunnies having birthday parties, whereas in European picture books you get to see dwarf clowns in bird masks playing mumblety-peg. (This is of course a broad generalization! I do not mean to favor one style over another! Though I can’t help but wonder if my childhood would have been maybe a little more awesome if I’d gotten to read a few more picture books about dream symphonies conducted by marionette puppets with insect heads. I’m just saying. And again, totally generalizing.) One of my favorite parts of the fair was seeing the walls on the illustrators’ posting room starting to fill up with tearsheets and samples and business cards on the first day of the fair; then coming back the second day to see that every inch of wall and some of the floor had been covered.  Eveyone loves to talk about these fairs and expos just in terms of how the book business is doing and about how many companies showed up this year, and all that, but one look at that illustrators posting room makes you remember that no matter what happens, the art keeps coming; it can fill up all the space if you let it.

The photo at the top of this entry is from the wonderfully dystopian BolognaFiere complex where the fair was held.  I loved this place. I sort of wish it had been in Florence because then I could have just gone there and looked at to cure my Stendhal Syndrome after spending all of Thursday morning staring at Renaissance cathedrals. The latter part of the week was in Florence, where I stayed at this Hotel Orchidea place where my cousin used to work (and you have to read this page about the history of the place, about how it’s in a tower where Dante’s wife lived, and how in the courtyard there’s a statue of a girl crying at the feet of a Sphinx while it gazes off and ignores her suffering! I’ve seen it and it really does just that!), and ate a lot of gelato, and little sandwiches, and fried olives. (Really, a surprising number of fried things, including some rice-and-meat balls that were delicious clods of cheesy, starchy joy, and if anyone knows what they’re called, please tell me.)

I’m glad I took so many photos. After the train from Florence back to Bologna and the two flights home, and a whole snowy weekend of napping and unpacking, I had to look everything up on Wikipedia—all the basilicas and piazzas and palazzos and piazzales, all the saints and the sculptors—just so I could label my pictures on Flickr. But it was worth it to go back and carefully assemble it all again. After I’d hurtled there and back, it was good to catch up with it all—with everything, and with myself, too.

A soddy excuse, indeed!

I would love for you to think that for the past month or so I’ve been dwelling in a sod dugout with no computer and only a kerosene-fueled Twitter feed, working on the book in pencil in my store-boughten notebooks with the orange covers. (I know that for some of you, that last sentence totally made sense, whereas the rest of you will think I have just lost my shit.)

But yes, I have been working on the book, and I forgot how hard it is to start a book, how completely daunting those first weeks are.  I feel like the last time I was this overwhelmed was when we moved to our current apartment, and now that I think about it, I’m convinced that starting a book is a hell of a lot like those first few days and weeks, when the whole place is just empty rooms with boxes of your stuff and you don’t know which boxes to open first, which ones have the important stuff in them, so you just unpack everything and clutter the whole place up with extension cords and stacks of books and lampshades, and suddenly you’re strangely miserable about the placement of the couch, because even though that’s probably the best place for the couch, you understand all too well that putting it in that spot means that you can’t put it anywhere else, and you can always move it later, yes, but then that means for sure you’ve picked the wrong place, which means you’re probably getting other things wrong; plus then there’s all this new stuff that you need, and this other stuff that you love suddenly doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

That’s how it’s been inside my head for awhile now. But room by room, it’s starting to happen.

Oh, and believe it or not, I’m flying to Italy this weekend. Will any of you be attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair? If so we should party and try to sell each other U.S. or foreign publication rights!  It will be awesome!

That’s all I have to report right now: cluttered apartment book-brain, impending Italy trip, and exhaustion. Next time I post here I will probably be even more tired, but worldlier, too. Have a good weekend, North America! Catch you on the flip side!