Hunting, hunting, hunting for my ticket to artistic freedom

I was so excited to sit down at my computer when all four kids started school this fall and write.
Just write.
It’s been six months since I’ve had regularly scheduled work hours and I had all kind of visions in my head of fully immersing myself in novel number three, taking running breaks whenever I suffered a bout of writer’s block, and maybe having a clean kitchen now and then.
Almost two weeks into the school year and I have yet to write more than a blog post.
I’ve gone running twice.
Dishes fill the sink.
It’s my own doing.
A few months ago, after the completion of my second novel, I amicably parted ways with my agent.
So now I am on my own again.
With my agent went the luxury of writing without a care.
I once again have to worry about the business of writing.
And I’m not happy about it.
The innocence that inspired me in the agent hunt the first time around is gone.
I no longer get giddy when I find an agent I want to query. I am well aware that the agent is receiving about 50 other queries on that same day and that my query might not get more than a glance, regardless of how hard I try to get that agent’s attention.
I no longer get my hopes up when I get a request for a full manuscript.
It’s affirming, but it’s just another step in the process.
A rejection is still more likely than a contract offer.
I no longer query any old agent with a web page.
I am pickier now, seeking only agents with proven sales records in my genre and carefully researching their reputations as human beings (No refection on my previous agent. He is a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor.). I want this agent to be my last agent.
I don’t ever want to go through this process again.
But I know I have to grin and bear this.
A good agent, in my opinion, is a godsend.
My fingers are itching to write, my mind is racing with plots and characters, but they will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The right agent will set me free.
Free to write.
And that freedom, I know, will be well worth it.

The long summer

It’s been a long summer.
A very long summer.
With early sunrises and late sunsets, no one sleeps in our household.
And no one wants to stay home.
That means no writing at night or early in the morning, and no sneaking in a few words here and there during the day.
I can’t even jot down notes at the pool or the lake because our youngest two are still swimmers-on-the-verge. Both have taken their first independent strokes. One even started swimming a little distance the other day. But at 4 years old, they still have no judgment and they certainly don’t have enough endurance.
My eyes must remain focused on them even when lifeguards are present.
I know.
I could make it a priority.
I could squeeze a few words in here and there.
But we have four kids and they tire me out.
What I really want at the end of the day is a glass of wine.
What I really want in the morning is a cup of coffee.
But my mind won’t rest.
Even without a laptop or a pencil and paper, I find that I am writing. I am writing in my head constantly, focusing on my characters when I should be focusing on the road, blurting out plot dilemmas during conversations about minnows and tadpoles, revising while I’m loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pots and pans.
When September comes around and the kids return to school, I know that I will have trouble doing anything but writing. I will obsess. I will forget my vow to exercise more. I will procrastinate on those home remodeling projects. I will be surprised to realize that it’s time to get the twins from preschool and nearly time for my husband to bring the older kids home.
I will have my hands on the keyboard, banging out those words — those characters, plots and settings — that are fighting for space in my head. The experience will be freeing just like it was last fall. I will be productive. Very productive.
I am excited.
But …
why then do I still dread the fall?
Why do I find that I am reluctant to send the kids off to their classrooms, where they will be challenged daily, where they socialize with their friends, where someone else will feed them lunch?  Maybe even saddened? Maybe even a wee bit depressed?
I love to write, but the reality is that I love my kids more.
And it’s healthy to be pulled away from my keyboard, to get a little color on my arms, legs and face, to have lunch on a picnic table that is situated between the beach and the playground.
It’s good for me to converse with other moms while the kids swing or climb on the monkey bars. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit into a chair at night with stars bright above me and fire crackling in front of me and my husband beside me, watching the older kids instruct the younger ones on the qualities of a perfect s’more.
The things is that every September brings us closer to ages when the kids won’t be interested in hanging out with mom in the summer anymore. Every September, I realize that they’ve grown just a little bit more. Grown a little more independent of me.
That makes me proud, but it also makes me appreciate the time I have with them.
I will always be able to write provided my mind remains sharp and my hands can still navigate a keyboard, but I will not always be able to a push swing or coming running to see a captured crayfish in a net or catch a child jumping off the edge of a pool.
Because the kids won’t need me that way.
So for now, the words in my head will just have to move over, cram closer together and make room for more.
They are not going anywhere.
But I am.
The pool, the deli, Darien Lake, the library, the playground, the beach, up and down the street in front of our house, grandma’s, Aunt Karen’s, cousin Amy’s, maybe Aunt Angie’s one more time, the mall, Market Street, a hike, and who knows where else.
Who knows.

Time to smoulder

So close.
I am so close to finishing my second novel.
The first draft is complete.
The second is underway.
But writing will have to wait.
A line has formed in recent months that includes painting the newly re-walled living room, painting our oldest son’s room, baking a tent-shaped cake for the Cub Scouts cake auction and tilling a garden plot. All things that have to be worked around kids, kids and kids.
Something is always waiting.
But, when it comes to writing, waiting can be a good thing.
The longer writing waits, the more it smoulders.
As it smoulders, it builds strength.
Plot inconsistencies become clearer with each stroke of the paint brush. Characterization problems are resolved with a few dozen turns of the soil. Novels restructure themselves in a bowl full of cocoa powder, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla.
When I return to the keyboard, I will have plenty of creative energy to burn.
And the novel won’t have to wait long.
I’ve decided to take a break for a few months from freelance work with the exception of one book editing job that I am excited to tackle. That will give me a few extra hours a week to devote to the novel. I should also be able to sneak some time in at night when all the kids are asleep after the painting is done.
I’m still hoping to be finished, really finished by summer,and the time spent thinking without the distraction of writing might just enable that.
Fewer wasted keystrokes.
Fewer wasted words.
More intense focus.
It’s so hard to be patient.
But it’s so important to wait.

NaNoWriMo mom-style

November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: start with a blank screen or a fresh sheet of paper and write 50,000 words by the end of the month. The effort has its own website with forums and everything. It doesn’t matter whether the words are coherent; Everyone who reaches 50,000 words wins.
I can’t do that.
There’s no way, not with four young kids, a freelance article due in early December, Christmas shopping, a century-old house that needs lots of TLC and–oh, yeah–not without further neglecting my own physical health.
But something happened today that got me thinking.
I was talking with my agent about the progress of my next novel. When I got off the phone, I felt a rush of creative adrenaline. In less than 45 minutes, I wrote another 1,000 words–solid, strong, plot-moving words. It was the thrill of deadline pressure that had motivated me, even though it wasn’t real.
My agent made it clear that he didn’t want to rush me, but I can’t resist a challenge, even an imagined one. In my 11 years as a full-time newspaper reporter, I never missed a deadline (though I’ve made some editors sweat). I thrived on the breaking news, the kind of stuff where targeted reporting, fast writing and just the write amount of clarity and creativity could land my story on the front page.
So why not put that to use.
I can’t write 50,000 words in a month, but maybe I can write 25,000 words. That’s less than 1,000 words a day, 834 words to be more precise. I don’t want to start fresh, not when I’m already one-third of the way through my next novel, so I can add to that instead.
I won’t officially join the NaNoWriMo effort either. The forums and emails are too distracting. I have trouble enough with Facebook, other writing forums and the twin parenting forums I frequent. I’ll be a loner unless some other busy writer out there wants to join me in some parallel word play.
Instead of answering to NaNoWriMo officials, I will answer here on my blog. I will provide updates in the middle of the month and at the end. And I will remain choosy about my words. No junk pages. No ramblings. Nothing expendable.
Though the stream-of-consciousness writing can be helpful for newer writers who are intimidated by the length of novels, I find it’s too much work to sort through the yucky stuff. It’s easier just to write well to begin with.
One last thing.
I won’t wait until November 1.
I’ll start right now.

The fourth anniversary of that moment in the Starbucks bathroom

Four years ago today, I woke up feeling pregnant.
I tried to shake it.
It was silly, I thought.
I assumed it was my cynical nature kicking in: I was finally freelancing regularly for a magazine; I had started querying agents for my novel; I was editing a book for a well-respected graduate school; and, in a few months, our youngest would start kindergarten.
Something had to go awry.
But that pregnant feeling only grew stronger by the hour.
By mid-afternoon, I broke down and took a test.
And as I stood there in that Starbucks bathroom, watching that second line grow stronger, I also watched my writing career fade. I was 40 years old and about to have my third child (and my fourth, as it turned out!). I would never get this freelance/novel-writing thing going full force, I thought.
I was ready to surrender.
But my husband, a former journalist/author turned techie, wouldn’t let me. He pushed me right back into the writing battle even though he just as shocked, bewildered, scared as I was. He made sure I was armed with a well-charged laptop. He made me face that Starbucks bathroom, the scene of my perceived defeat, once again.
But not right away.
Tom did allow me a sabbatical of sorts.
He had to.
I was horribly sick and tired that first trimester and beyond. I found out why during my 20-week ultrasound; I was carrying two little guys in there. Two beautiful, perfect and healthy baby boys.
By the time my stomach had improved, my belly was so big, I couldn’t reach the keyboard. My fingers were too swollen to type anyway and I was on partial bed rest with two older kids to care for.
My husband didn’t mention my writing much and neither did it.
The first few months after the twins were born were a sleepless fog of nursing, diaper changing and shuttling the older kids back and forth to half-day and full-day school and their activities. Tom was still traveling frequently then and we had no family here to help us.
It was all we could do to stay awake for another day.
But by that fall, things had started to settle a bit. The twins were sleeping better, my husband’s travel schedule was less hectic, the older kids were both in school for full days. I was getting antsy and, I admit, somewhat depressed. And my husband knew it.
One night in November of 2007, he pulled out my laptop after all the kids had gone to sleep and showed me this site called Blogger. Just start a blog to keep your writing fresh, he said. No big deal, he pushed. Just do it for fun.
And I did.
My first blog, The Boys: Raising Identical Twins, stirred something in me again. That stirring inspired me to pick up the novel and give it a good overhaul. I was surprised by the insight I had gained by being removed from my manuscript for so long. I eliminated major characters, wrote new chapters and deleted others.
I started querying again and one, day, when the twins were two and a half years old, I got the email that led to the happy dance.
I signed with Roger Williams of The Publish or Perish Agency.
Now, four years after that second line appeared in the Starbuck’s bathroom, my novel, Spring Melt, is under submission with major publishing houses; my first short story is due for publication in the fall issue of Aethlon, a journal of sport literature centered at the East Tennessee State University; and my second novel is well underway.
Yes, the twins did affect my writing career, but in a good way. Our entire family dynamic has changed since their birth. The older kids have become more independent and have shown a capacity for love and responsibility that blows my mind. The twins have taught us both to both prioritize and relax. Enjoy life more. (Right now, they are squirting hand soap all over the bathroom. So what? Half an hour of fun for $1.99.)
I have learned to write more efficiently and to concentrate on the projects that are most important to me: no more book editing. I have done all this and they are not even in preschool yet. I am 44 years old, I have three-year-old twins, a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, yet I am still writing, and I believe I am writing on a more mature level than I was before The Day of the Stick.
My creativity did not whither the day the twins were born, in part, because my husband encouraged me to nourish it.
So, on this day, on the fourth anniversary of the appearance of those double lines, I thank him.
I thank him for loving me, pushing me and believing in me.
(And I would greatly appreciate it if he would pick up some more hand soap on the way home.)

Distance and the evolution of friendships

A friend and I were chatting the other day when I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We’re not so close anymore, I said.
Not since I moved.
My friend’s reaction: So when you move, they’re not your close friends any more?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I are hoping to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn’t want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.
Not at all.
But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.
They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.
It is a lesson I have learned over the past 11 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cinncinati, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presense of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails and occassional visits.
I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.
But then something happened.
Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. Suddenly, I noticed that my old friends had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the emails less detailed.
The babies were one factor.
The other was simple logistics.
In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks–some more than others–but the rest remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.
I had left them with everything, but me.
But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperment of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to built a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.
It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.
In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.
Too easy.
But it wasn’t easy for my old friends and it wasn’t healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.
I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.
That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of “best” friendship can never be undone.
It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don’t call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don’t call her when my kids reach particular milestones, when I’m thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a particular situation in my life.
And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.
I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And I have no doubt I will remain connected with this newer friend for many years to come regardless of the miles between us. We met through a mutual passion for writing, something that can be nourished from afar, no matter how quickly our children grow.

Writing and rocks

My husband knew better than to ask “whether.”
Instead, he simply asked me “when.”
When could I teach my son’s Cub Scout den about geology?
Then he gave me a list of possible dates.
I was leery.
It’d been a long time since I’d buried my nose in rocks, 25 years to be precise.
I had always had a passion for earth science, but I loved books and writing more. Still, when it came time to declare a college major, I couldn’t bring myself to choose English.
I had moved out on my own at 17, during my senior year of high school. I had worked full time most of my junior year and all of my senior year while juggling sports and school work. I didn’t want to work that hard anymore.
An English major, I thought, wasn’t practical.
I wouldn’t make any money.
Too much stress.
So I choose my second love: rocks.
Or, more formally, geochemistry.
That lasted one semester.
Remember when I said I wasn’t willing to work that hard anymore?
Geochemistry is a lot of work.
So I drifted about as “undeclared,” taking courses in English and in interpersonal communications here and there simply because they were fun. Next thing I knew, my “fun” courses became my dual major and I was working full time as a journalist.
I had made the writing thing work.
And I forgot about rocks.
Until our oldest son became a toddler.
He was fascinated by rocks and fossils, and still is.
As I helped him hunt fossils and identify a few minerals, I realized just how rusty I’d become. My knowledge was old. I was busy. I didn’t have time to rekindle old passions, I thought.
But then this opportunity came along.
These kids, these Webelos Ones, are counting on me.
They want their badges.
I knew I couldn’t just wing it.
So I dove back in.
It took me about 30 minutes of review to realize why I loved earth science so much. As a hobby, it’s easy. No physics involved. No need to memorize world history. No calculus. Just me and a bunch of minerals. Minerals that might have been touched, walked on or looked upon by anyone from cavemen to Cleopatra to JFK.
My love for writing and my love for rocks are not separate passions. They stem from the same sense of curiosity, the same craving to imagine and create, the same appreciation for beauty and art. Rocks are, for me, a muse.
So next Tuesday, I’ll hand three Webelos Ones paper plates full of clay. I’ll watch as they smash chunks of clay together to create mountains. I’ll pay special attention to their eyes as they discover the beauty of creation and evolution.
I might even smile as order them to clean up the mess (because they are sure to throw the clay at something or someone when we’re done. How could they possibly resist?). I’ll smile because I’ll be thinking, thanks Tom.
Thanks for asking me “when.”

Big Purple Mommy

For the past few months, I struggled to breathe.
I was under water and I’d lost my focus.
I couldn’t find the surface and I was running out of air.
I was dying.
As a writer.
Okay, so maybe that’s a little dramatic.
But that’s how it felt.
Like the daily duties of life, the needs of everyone in my life, the needs of the household, mine own less glamorous needs (dental visits and doctor visits and a glass of red wine at the end of the night) were closing in around me.
Confusing me.
I had lost my focus.
I couldn’t find my laptop.
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t figure out how or when to write.
I thought maybe I was getting too old, wearing down, losing my creativity, losing my mind.
Then I saw it.
Sitting right there on the bookshelf in the basement across from my desk.
Big Purple Mommy by Coleen Hubbard.
And I remembered the last time Coleen Hubbard saved me from drowning.
We were living in Arizona.
My older kids were 18 months old and almost three.
I had written a few chapters of my novel, but not much.
I just couldn’t seem to figure out how to write any more.
Somehow, I stumbled upon her book.
I read it and, a few days later, hired a sitter.
Two actually.
They were sisters (Thank you Andrea and Amanda!) and they insisted on coming together.
Two days a week for four hours a day, I sat in a study room in the local l library and wrote, finally completing the first draft within a few months.
I went back to teaching as an adjunct when I finished, something else I enjoyed, and I didn’t worry about my writing. I knew it needed a rest, I knew I need some distance from my novel and I knew my creativity would come back.
We moved, we settled into our home in Cincinnati and I picked up the novel again a few years ago and revised it.
It felt good.
And it was all because of Coleen Hubbard’s book.
Big Purple Mommy is all about balancing creativity and motherhood. She helped me realize, with lots of testimony from other creative moms, that I needed to, first, give myself a break when my kids were young, and second, make a huge effort to carve out time for creative work without guilt.
I did that and I was happy.
I began rereading the book again the other day.
And I found myself in its pages.
I’d lost my focus because the twins have stopped napping and because the twins are 2.5 years old. But time will pass, they will get older and they will be less demanding on a minute-by-minute basis. I will not lose my creativity during that time because stuff is always swirling in my head.
If anything, I might just mature as a writer because of it.
The twins will start going to a sitter three days a week for three hours each time next week.
I’ll need some of that time to do ordinary things I can’t do when they are around–clean, doctor appointments, run errands–but at least one of those days will be mine, all mine.
And I will write.
Thank you Coleen.
Thank you Big Purple Mommy.
For rescuing me again.

The Great (Writers) Depression

It seems that this recession is quickly giving way to a great depression.
And I’m not sure how to stop it.
Today, a woman posted on a writing forum that she is giving up writing for good. Her husband is unsupportive, her kids are unsupportive, the rest of her family is unsupportive.
She might as well focus on scrubbing floors, she said.
A good friend who has spent the past 20 years working full time as a playwright, posted his laments recently on a social networking site. I was surprised. He always seemed to be doing so well.
But he doesn’t feel that way.
He’s bumming.
I went through my own slump last week. The querying process had me down. Way down, even though I’ve had plenty of requests recently for partials and proposals. It just seemed like I’d been working at this for so long and getting nowhere.
Thankfully, a virtual intervention on a writers forum was successful.
I am much more cheerful now.
I hadn’t noticed this much negativity in the writing world before.
Maybe I’d just never opened my eyes.
Maybe it’s because the adrenaline rush is wearing off, kind of like it did after my first marathon 16 years ago.
I ran that first marathon on a dare.
I couldn’t resist the challenge.
I had run only 25 miles a week prior to the race and my only long run was a 19-miler three weeks before. I was out with an injury for the two weeks before the race, so I didn’t get any running in then either.
Yet I ran it in 3 hours, 58 minutes.
I ran on pure ignorance.
Pure bliss.
Pure stupidity.
I ran the last two miles on legs of lead.
Blood soaked through my sneakers as I crossed the finish line.
I lost nine toenails over the next couple weeks because I’d worn cheap cotton socks and 5K running shoes.
I didn’t care.
Not then.
I was gleeful.
I was ready to run another.
Imagine my surprise when, a week later, I was too sore to run half a mile.
My toes were too sensitive for sneakers.
My knees were a mess.
That adrenaline rush was gone.
But something else happened. As the rush subsided, my eyes opened. I began investigating all the things I did wrong. I started looking for ways to do it right. I read books. I developed a training method. I bought new sneakers and socks with Coolmax.
I ran another marathon.
This time, I finished in 3 hours, 42 minutes.
So maybe this is a good thing, this loss of adrenaline.
Maybe I was so blissful and so ignorant when I began this querying process that I didn’t notice all the writers struggling surrounding me. I didn’t see how hard it could be, how disappointing sometimes. Maybe, I was doing it all wrong.
Maybe it’s better that my eyes are open now because I find myself focusing more, targeting the right agents, working on my platform, freelancing, submitting short stories, starting another novel.
I was doing okay before.
But maybe now I’ll do better.
Maybe that great depression is always there for all of us, always threatening. Maybe that threat is part of what keeps us alive and hopeful and motivated. Because I sure as heck don’t want to fall prey to it.
Nope.
Not going to do that.
I am going to work hard and work smarter.
And someday I might even run one last marathon.

Know the source

Originally posted Feb. 5, 2009

I have learned a great deal from the folks on the forums of Absolutewrite.com, but a recent thread bothered me. Someone had written an intriguing query letter and had posted it in the “Share Your Work” forum, hoping for advice on improvements.
The responses came quickly: other writers confidently tearing it to shreds.
After the first few replies, some voices of reason began to emerge, published authors or those with agent contracts who suggested that the writer simply polish a few sentences and go for it. It really was good. It just needed a little tweak here and there.
I can only hope that the original poster read beyond those first few replies.
The lesson: know your sources.
The Internet is flooded with forums, blogs and private groups for writers. Absolute Write is one of the good ones. If ever I actually sell a book, I will make a donation. Those folks saved me from doing such crazy things as paying fees to agents, sending silly query letters or signing with publishers that are nothing more than self-publishing companies in disguise.
But every forum has its less-than-credible members and it is important to take advice from their members with a healthy dose of cynicism. Helpful writers will be in tune with your needs and your goals. They will ask questions. They will give answers with confidence, but not with arrogant confidence. They will make you feel good about their replies even if they’ve just suggested that you are going down entirely the wrong path.
I belong to another online writing group that is private. I have found wonderful advice and support there from women who face similar obstacles with their writing, but one fellow writer stood out among the rest. Her advice was often loudly written and left me shaking my head. She always punctuated her harsh words with her experience as a published author.
So I bought her novel (It was out of print, so I had to buy it from a used book dealer.). Her book was awful. The publisher went out of business long ago. When I Googled them both, I found that they had worked together previously. The publisher was likely a friend.
Worse yet, the copy I purchased had been autographed, a gift to a person who had helped her with her research.
Now, when I see her responses, I skip them.
I know the source.