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.

The big E

The Wilder Life is coming out as a hardcover book. I was fine with I’m Not the New Me being a trade paperback, but the idea of hardcover thrills me—the smooth jacket, the photo on the back flap, the board binding and stamped spine underneath. I love how you can take off the jacket of any hardcover book, even the Snooki book, and suddenly it looks important and serious, like a Franklin Library Classic.

I keep thinking it’s sort of a weird time to be published in hardcover. I wonder these days, with the book business the way it is, and bookstores closing down, and ebooks as this bright new flickering thing.  It’s a fun time to be working in children’s books—at work our picture books are starting to show up on tablets and we’re starting to think in terms of apps. (I wish there was a better shorthand name for a digitally enhanced picture book than “app,” as long as it’s not something inane like “blingybook” or “schmoopystory” or whatever.)

But when it comes to hardcover books in general, I wonder whether they’re destined to become more precious objects, or just clunkier ones. I wonder what it’ll all be like the next time I have a book out.

I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks ebooks are the end of the world, but I don’t quite know what they’re the beginning of, either, or even if they’re the beginning of anything different. I have an e-reader now (I don’t want to say what kind, but it has a k in its name). It’s great—nice and light and I use it mostly for reading manuscripts, and it’s already pretty life-changing in that respect. I have a few books on there, but I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet, and probably won’t until I do some traveling this spring. I suspect when I do finally start reading this way I am going to love the hell out of not having to stuff books in my carry-on and that there are certain books that I’m going to buy and read this way. But I also know that I’ll still be buying a lot of new books in hardcover for the time being. I’ll keep buying my friends’ books in old-style booky form, and books from people whose readings I go to, and books from bookstores that I want to support so that they don’t go out of business and get turned into Jimmy John’s franchises. I know most people don’t have all of those same reasons I have, but I like to think that when it comes to book formats we’re going to stay omnivorous and consume different books in different ways.

One side effect of having a book published, I’ve found, is that people tend to tell you how they bought or didn’t buy your book, whether or not you want to hear the truth. They’ll tell you that they loved reading the copy that fifteen of their friends are passing around, or that they bought it for ten cents at a library sale, or that they read it at the bookstore because they “just don’t buy books.” And yes, some of these truths make me wince a little, but it’s also true that those people found me and read me and thought enough about what they read to email me about it, or to post something on a place like Goodreads. I will try to remember that next time I hear that someone is reading a pirated PDF of my book on their internet-enabled digital watch or something (but please don’t read a pirated PDF of my book on your internet-enabled digital watch).

I don’t know what the takeaway of all this is: a book in the hand is worth something, even it’s not the kind of book that you can hold in your hand? That sounds right.  Hearing that someone has my book on a Nook or a Kindle or a Kobo or an iPad or a Samsung tablet thingamabob or as an mp3 audio download will be humbling and wonderful, and I hope when the time comes you’ll let me know how you’re reading The Wilder Life.

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Speaking of Goodreads, there’s still time to sign up for a chance to win a free galley. (Just don’t pirate it and stick it on your watch.)


Yes, I wrote a picture book. And as of this spring it’s out.


There’s been a growing need for books about peanut allergy, and the folks at Albert Whitman were looking for something new. We’d published The Peanut-Free Cafe in 2006 and we wanted to be able to offer something else. And one day, during an editorial meeting, we were talking about how we wished we had another peanut allergy book. We were also talking about how we could wished we had some kind of princess picture book. (Memo from children’s book land: princesses are HUGE.)

“We need a book called ‘The Princess and the Peanut,'” I said, not too seriously.

“You need to write a book called ‘The Princess and the Peanut,'” my boss said. “Seriously.”

Okay, then! I promised I would try.

I had another reason for writing a book like this. Chris has several food allergies, including one to tree nuts: almonds, pecans, cashews—pretty much any nut that isn’t a peanut. So I know about having to to be flexible, checking food labels and asking questions; about having to speak up in inconvenient situations. I started thinking about how all this might affect someone’s very princessy birthday party, and that’s when Paula and Regina started to come to life.

And then I had to rewrite it a ton of times, and then wait around anxiously while everyone else at Whitman was off in another room discussing whether or not the story was as good as something that would have come from a writer outside the company, and also, I’m sure, discussing how badly I dress and how I never dust those action figures that I have in my office. (That’s definitely the downside of getting your book published by the same company you work for.)

The upside, of course is that I got to see my book get made, and watch slowly as Paula and Regina really came to life, thanks to  Tammie Lyon and her completely perfect illustrations. I especially love Regina’s big round owl glasses. THERE ARE NEVER ENOUGH CUTE GLASSES GIRLS IN CHILDREN’S BOOK LAND.  Oh, and you can see another illustration from the book in Tammie’s online portfolio.

Anyway, now the book is done—along with the other Spring titles that we worked on last year. Of course, now we’re already well into working on production for the next spring’s book, and you barely notice when a current title hits the shelf.  Except when you’re the one who wrote it, that is.

(Buy it from Albert Whitman, or Amazon, or, or Powell’s, or IndieBound. )