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.

Just so we're caught up

6/13/08: Mystery 8

About four weeks ago I was in Portland feeding $20 bill to a TriMet fare machine and getting totally buried under a pile of Sacajawea coins. Three weeks ago I had houseguests and got just a glimpse of the Pilcrow Lit Fest and had dinner with assorted amazing ladies (Jami, Zulkey, Diantha, and then Lauren and Dana the next night). Two weeks ago I planted a garden. Last week had another houseguest (Chris’s mom!) and we took her to IKEA. Four days ago I went to see Lynda Barry and buy her new book. And this weekend I made salads, did laundry, and took a whole bunch of junk to Salvation Army so that now, for the love of Jiminy Cricket on a cracker, we finally have room to fit the Christmas tree in the storage space where it’s supposed to go and will henceforth get it the hell out of the back sunroom where I’ve been keeping random stuff like suitcases and plastic milk crates and undiscarded boxes and spare crock pots and THIS BLOG. Hello! I’m sorry I’ve been treating this site like the Christmas tree.

But I trust you know that I’ve been alive, especially if you’ve been following me elsewhere. There’s been writing (not enough, as always) and gardening (in the sense that I put some seeds in the dirt one day, and a week later they actually sprouted, and I know I’m new to all this, but still, I did not quite expect that, and what speedy service this Nature thing has) and running (very slowly, so slow I can’t stand to see my sad shuffling shadow lurching shakily across the pavement and I’m sure that in actual 3D I look like a Ray Harryhausen animation or something). But it’s all for a better good.

It’s been hard to look at photos and news footage of the flooding in Iowa City this past week, because it’s even more extensive than what happened when I was there in 1993. It was the summer before I went to grad school, and the water went over the Coralville Dam spillway for the first time ever and eroded the floodplain down to bedrock and trilobites and dead dinosaurs. There were sandbags everywhere, and dead fish in the Hardee’s parking lot, and more than once the evening news urged everyone to stockpile jugs of water and fill our bathtubs at night, in case the floodwaters polluted the water supply the way it did in Des Moines. I had a hideous telemarketing job selling supplemental homeowner’s insurance to Sears credit cardholders, and there was a part in the pitch where I had to say, “What would you do if your home was damaged in one of the strong storms we’ve been having?” Shift to serious tone here, the script specified. I winced every time I said it. Somehow I talked the shift manager into letting me work the no-annual-fee Discover card campaign instead, because, GOD. Anyway, it’s strange to imagine that it’s even worse this time around. The flooding, I mean, not the telemarketing industry. And hang in there, all ye Hawkeyes. You too, Cedar Rapids folks—may the waters recede and your town go back to smelling like cereal.

Oh, and for the librarians and other publishing folks among you, I’m going to be at ALA at the end of the month. I’ll be repping the company I work for (Albert Whitman & Co!) at booth 2428. Stop by and say hi!

08:17 AM, from txt

This morning on the drive to work we were stopped at the light at Kedzie and Peterson. Just as the light was turning green there was this kid, like this high school kid, in front of the car—he was still crossing, moving slowly through the crosswalk. He wasn’t scared of being hit. He had his hood up, and he looked morosely pleased with himself as he shuffled by and made the cars wait.

I told Chris, “That kid is so like, ‘Dude, I just cheated death.'”

“You know that’s going to be his Twitter today,” Chris said.

Merry Merry

Our tree

Ah ha! I have a few spare moments somehow! I’m sure everyone is off a-wassailing by now, but in case any of you are still around, I’ve stuffed this here blog stocking with some of my favorite Christmas stuff:

Anyway, enjoy. Feliz Navidad, chickens!

Seven things I would tell you about publishing a children's book if you bought me a drink and didn't mind me getting all worked up

I’m only at around 10,000 words with NaNoWriMo, but I think that’s pretty good considering I had a BUST column to finish this week. It makes me a little woozy having to go from high-volume unedited spewing to working on something that’s only 850 words. It’s like I spent most of yesterday building a little dainty delicate ship in a bottle with teeny tweezers and now it’s hard to go back to whacking big rocks with a shovel. This is all to explain why this children’s book publishing advice I’m about to give you now probably comes off like…whacking dainty ships-in-bottles with a shovel. My apologies. But here goes:

1. Don’t even think of submitting your picture book story to a major publisher with artwork (unless it’s your own). This means no illustrations drawn by your best friend, or your kid, or your computer, or the professional artist friend-of-a-friend who once did some work for Nickelodeon, or anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the art is good. It’s a bad idea. Art is to children’s book editors what hair is to America’s Next Top Model: the experts get to decide the look, not you. I know it’s hard to hear that the cute kitty pictures your cousin painted are as wrong as Bianca’s pink weave, but IT’S TRUE.

2. This also means that you have to write something that’s not a picture book yet. It will be open to an artist’s interpretation. It will become something very different than what you orginally imagined; you have to write a story that has both substance and possibilty. If this mystifies you or freaks you out, then chances are you’re either not inclined or not ready to write picture books. I won’t say it’s harder to do than other writing, because I don’t think it is—just that it’s a unique skill that some writers have and others (even very good writers) don’t.

3. On a related note, and because someone always asks: no, you can’t write one of those wordless picture books. Not unless you’re also the illustrator. Yeah, sorry, nobody is going to pay you for thinking up pictures you can’t draw.

4. The cover letter is where you mention your previous relevant publishing experience, if you have any. If you don’t have any previous relevant publishing experience, then the cover letter is just something I skim to make sure you’re not incarcerated or blatheringly insane. AND THAT IS ALL. Therefore please feel free to write a cover letter that is boring and standard and not at all the hustling, “attention-getting,” ingratiatingly assertive pageant-mom kind of letter that gives me cancer of the last nerve. Thank you.

5. If you think that you are the first person ever to write a children’s book about a about a specific subject, you’re probably wrong. Then again, not everything in the universe needs to have a children’s book about it, so if there really are no picture books out there about, say, asbestos abatement, maybe the world doesn’t need one that badly! I’m just saying.

6. If your story is something that you wrote for your kids, or your kids’ class, or the class that you teach, or the creative writing class that you’re taking, or if you sent it out as a Christmas card, then it’s probably not ready to submit to a publisher as a children’s picture book, no matter how much it impressed your family/friends/teacher in the first place. Maybe it can be a children’s book eventually, but you’ll have to take the time to learn a little bit about the business and probably rework your story, and the whole process takes awhile, and really, you should do it only if you really want to do it, not because your family/friends/teacher think you should. It’s nice of them to say so, but if you were wondering if your family/friends/teacher know something about children’s books that you don’t know, I’m here to tell you that they don’t. (Unless your family/friend/teacher happens to be me, in which case you have already heard me ranting about this.)

7. I’m telling you all this stuff just for today, but this lady does it every week, so if you want more, read her.

Nanobot

roethkefiles.jpg

Chris thinks “NaNoWriMo” sounds like the name of a hipster white rapper. NaNoWriMo is like a backpacker MC whose beats aren’t any good because he’s decided to base them on algorithms. And then he spits rhymes like, Tha numbers don’t lie, and neither do I! I’m NaNoWriMo!

Oh my God, I signed up, and I’m at something like four thousand words now. Tha numbers don’t lie! I’m really not sure if I’m in it to win it. I’m doing it because I’ve had a certain idea for a while now, and maybe if I set the freakish goony strength of this NaNo thing lumbering after it, something will happen. I just don’t know if I need 50,000 words for it to happen, because I actually kind of like my inner editor, and I might not be hardcore enough to totally banish her for a whole month and just dwell in my own filth that way. But I’ll let you know how it goes. I like it so far.

Per my last entry I’ll still be posting Stuff I Know About Getting Published (Though of Course I Don’t Know Everything) this month, too. If you read the comments you already know that you shouldn’t submit a children’s book manuscript with a friend’s illustrations, because I will lose my shit and lecture you mightily! But keep the questions coming.

In other news, I would like to congratulate my downstairs neighbor, Gracie, for peeing in the potty. Gracie, your parents are very, very enthusiastic about your progress. Or so I hear, in the laundry room. Well, good for you. And when that stuff gets old, you can always try NaNoWriMo.