Thursday, November 14, 2013

Getting to Know Your Characters: What's in the backpack?

One of my favorite getting-to-know-your-character exercises to do with young students involves a familiar object:  the school backpack.

We writers talk a lot about getting to know our characters, which, to those who DON’T spend entire days with imaginary people, might sound a bit odd.  Frankly … it is odd.  Really odd.  Because the whole exercise implies there’s an otherness to a character, an existence outside ourselves, when in fact these folks are inventions of our own design.  We control them, right?  In reality, getting to know a character is really about exploring your own imagination, digging deep or opening closed doors to discover what you really want to write about.

So these exercises are about springing locks.  Getting us to see things/people/situations in new ways.

For me, making lists doesn’t help much.  Lists lock me into traditional ways of seeing.  Asking my character, “What’s your favorite color? Your favorite food? The name of your dog?” relegates my character to a world strikingly like the one I live in.  And fiction is where we don’t live.  It’s an edgier, riskier place.  That’s why we like it.

So I like to pry, into shadowy places where my characters don’t expect me to go.  That’s when I learn who they really are … and that’s when surprising things, a.k.a. plot … happen.  The other day, I made serious headway on my latest novel when my character pulled out his coat from last season and I stuck my hands in his pockets.  You know what I’m talking about:  last fall’s jacket, it wasn’t sent to the cleaners, and … there’s stuff in the pockets.  Old, forgotten stuff.  For my character, it was ticket stubs and a mini tin of Altoids. 

Maybe that doesn’t sound very promising, but wow.  The storms that were unleased!  I’m not going to give away what happened after that, but hopefully you’ll read about it someday, when this is a book …

If coat pockets don’t work for you, try peeking into your character’s bathroom drawers.  Medicine cabinet.  Fridge.  Glove compartment.  Go through her purse.  Get hold of her phone and read her text messages. 

Sound creepy and invasive?  Trust me: it yields pure gold. 

This is very, very fun to do with adolescents and teens, who like anything remotely naughty.  And peeking into someone’s backpack is all of that.

Here’s the how to:  get hold of a couple of backpacks.  Into each, throw about seven items.  This is actually harder than it sounds … you don’t want to be too “leading,” or too banal.  The combinations of items usually yield a good harvest.  For example, in one of my recent packs, I put both a detention letter AND a National Honor Society pin.  The day before I had omitted the pin, and the results were far less interesting.  So give students some tensions to work with.

I also like to create one pack that screams gender specificity.  The kids often assume the character with the headlamp and the knot tying guide is a boy who likes the outdoors, and they ALWAYS assume that the character whose backpack contains cuticle cream, nail polish and hand sanitizer is a girl.  After we’re done talking about “her,” I ask them to tell me about the character if we assume it’s a boy carrying the cuticle cream,.  That’s when the fun begins … and when the story lines start to emerge.  He’s either a thief, or a boy with secrets, or a boy with unrequited love, or a flake who picked up the wrong pack … the kids start spinning tales.

If you have a very limited amount of time, snooping through the packs and discussing, as a group, who these characters might be, is all you can accomplish.  That’s okay:  the snooping exercise is truly “news they can use,” a technique not only for jump starting new stories, but also for fleshing out characters in stories-in-progress.  For example, the revision stage is a great time to dig a little deeper into a character’s life.  The better we know them, the more consistent they will be!

On days when I have lots of time with students, we take what we learned from the backpacks and move on to the “Plot Follows Character” prompt.  But … that’s for another post!

In the meantime, teacher and middle grade author Kate Messner had a great National Novel Writing Month post with lots of ideas for kids who want to get to know their characters.  Take a look here … and happy writing!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Gift ... and the Challenge ... of Time

Today is the first official day of fall, my favorite season.  Even the depressing darkness of November (in Maine we lose the sunlight by 4:30 pm in that bleak month) brings certain delights:  wood stove fires; roasts; hot cider.  Though I'll be almighty sick of snow and ice come March, the first cold snap in September thrills me. We pick apples and eat donuts (a food I shun the rest of the year), conduct the hat and mitten inventory, resurrect favorite sweaters. I love the slant of the sun this time of year, even when it's a driving hazard heading west at rush hour, and the low, persistent whine of crickets. True, I don't love the spiders who migrate into my basement office as the weather cools, and all those need-to-be-raked leaves on the lawn stress me out, but the rest of it? Wonderful.

This fall, I find myself in the Disneyland of All Things Autumnal:  Vermont.  The stars have aligned in such a way that I have several weeks of what I can only describe as a Writer's Retreat in Vermont, and I have nothing ... absolutely nothing ... to do besides feed myself, observe the changing foliage, feed the cats (more about them, later) and write.  It's a little mind blowing, to be honest.  A surfeit of riches I never imagined.  A novelist's dream come true.  Acres and acres of uninterrupted hours to be wildly creative, stopping only for a brief hike up to Robert Frost's cabin (yes indeed it's around the corner) or getting up from the desk to toss another log on the fire.  Amazing.  Just amazing.

And utterly frightening.

For the first time in my life I have absolutely no excuses for not getting my work done.  And oh, I love my excuses.  They are the salve I apply when distraction, laziness, insecurity, and overall professional brattiness set in.  Of course I can't get to writing, my kids need me this morning!  Of course I haven't started that novel I'm painting the house!  How could I be writing when I need to get dinner on the table/visit my sick friend/walk the dog/etc./etc. 

But it's more than that.  Sometimes this just feels hard.  Sometimes I hate my characters and I'm so completely bored with their lives (aka my story) that I fantasize about a factory line job.  I've had those jobs.  Back when I was in high school, scraping together a few bucks in any way possible, and let me tell you: they are amazing.  As long as you stay alert enough to avoid losing a finger, you can mentally drift all day and still collect a paycheck at the end of the week.  In the writing business, you can concentrate until your head pounds and still not get paid for two years.  And at the end of it, you have reviews to look forward to, but don't get me started on that.

Writing a book is a pregnancy that lasts years, followed by a very long labor without an epidural, and might still require a C-section.  Add to that someone is bound to say, "Your baby's ugly," when it's all over and you gotta wonder:  why?  For God's sake, why?

This is the part of the blog post where I'm supposed to seque into the joys of the creative life ... but no.  No pablum today.  The joys do not outweigh the aggravation.  Writing and publishing a book does not change your life (unless you make a ton of money, but ha! to that) and even after the rush of opening the box when those first volumes arrive, one is still someone's wife and mother and dog owner and daughter and sister and if you weren't already satisfied with all that, well ... that box of books isn't going to help you.

You do this because you can't help yourself.  Because even if writing doesn't make you incredibly happy, not writing makes you unbearable even to yourself.

So here I am, with this amazing gift of time, no excuses: and I'm between books.  Yup.  And that's the positive spin: between books.  It implies another one is on the way.  It's actually more like this:  interested friendly people ask me, "What are you writing now?" and I have to stop myself from grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them and screaming hysterically, "Nothing!  Absolutely nothing! And I don't know where to start or what to do! What should I do?"

This does not engender further conversation.  It does not solidify friendship.  Most importantly, it does not get the writing done.  The only thing that gets the writing done and the next story written is Nike wisdom:  Just Do It.

So for the next ten days, and then again in October for another block of days, I'm in full retreat. From excuses. From insecurity.  Because no matter what came before, it always comes back to this: the blank page.

Today, Day One of my Amazing Vermont Writing Adventure, I began with a ten-minute Peter Elbow exercise (his book, "Writing Without Teachers" is my bible) followed by a brisk walk to the food co-op where I purchased a Red Hen Bakery organic baguette, Vermont Cheddar, and apples for lunch, all the way thinking about the fellow who emerged during the Peter Elbow exercise.  I decided to blog, put it out there, so to speak, about the No Excuses Plan to Get Working and Find Your Next Book, and after posting this I'm going to start that chapter I imagined during the walk.  I usually do this sort of writing warm up with my dog, but she's still in Maine.  However, this place where I'm staying has cats.  Very independent cats who must be lured indoors at night by shaking bags of kittie treats.  Something for me to get used to ... but I'm happy for the company.

Meanwhile, there's been some joy:  I made a pilgrimage to The Flying Pig independent bookstore (recently named best bookstore for kids in 2013 by Yankee Magazine!) in Shelburne, Vermont yesterday where I found they had one of my books in their YA section (I left them with a signed copy of Out of Nowhere so perhaps they'll carry that one, too.) This is a fabulous indie; check them out.  They had my friend Stephen Kiernan's book, The Curiosity, prominently displayed. Yay. Visited the harvest festival at Shelburne Farms yesterday, followed by dinner at Jessica's restaurant in Middlebury.

Okay.  To work.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Ramadan Mubarek

I had to begin this post with a picture of the food. Tandoor Bakery and Restaurant in Portland, Maine, kindly and deliciously provided an amazing meal for all of us who "broke the fast" for Ramadan together this past Friday night. The line was out the door at the Rines Auditorium, the conversation was great and even though I thought I knew about Ramadan I discovered I had more to learn.

This was all part of the I'm Your Neighbor multicultural community read which is going on in Portland throughout the year, and Friday's event focused on Ramadan and featured my book, Out of Nowhere, and Moon Watchers, by Reza Jalali, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.

The evening began with Reza sharing memories of Ramadan from his childhood, explaining what the month-long fast is all about, and telling us how his family practices today.  Even though this is a "childrens" book, readers of all ages would love the story and gorgeous illustrations.

Throughout the evening there were prayer rugs on display, books from the I'm Your Neighbor collection for sale and to check out from the library, and henna hand painting demonstrations.

Following Reza's presentation, Pious Ali, of Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, led a panel discussion which included me, my friend (and great resource for Out of Nowhere) Shobow Saban, Reza and Anne.

From left: Reza Jalali, Anne Sibley O'Brien

Shobow, left, and me.

After that, it was time to FEAST.  We broke the fast with a prayer, and those who hadn't eaten all day were first in line.  Great food and fun conversation followed.
Anne Sibley O'Brien serves up dessert!
Pious Ali (center) shares dinner with friends.
From left: Shobow Saban, Reza Jalali, USM students
Shobow was eager to get to his meal (you can't see it but he's holding a plate) but conversation came first.
I was thrilled to be part of this amazing evening.  Next up on the I'm Your Neighbor schedule: A Path of Stars, a celebration of Cambodians in Maine, Thursday, August 8th.

From left: Shobow Saban, Reza Jalali, me

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Books in Boothbay

The Maine author fair formerly known as Books and Blooms (that was back in the day when it was held at the Botanical Gardens), now known as Books in Boothbay (and held at the Boothbay Railway Village) is a rite of summer and I was so happy to attend this past Saturday.  Sponsored by Sherman's Bookstore and the Boothbay Public Library, it's a great day to connect with readers and author friends.  And pick up books!  So many great books.

Katie Quirk and Ellen Booraem
I bought a copy of Katie Quirk's A Girl Called Problem, a young adult novel about a teen from Tanzania who is determined to overcome tremendous adversity in her life and go to school.  I've been an Ellen Booraem fan since I read her book Small Persons With Wings, bought a copy of The Unnameables, and can't wait to read Texting the Underworld, which is coming out this August.

Lisa Jahn-Clough (left) and Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Novelist Lisa Jahn-Clough signed a copy of her new book, Nothing But Blue, for me.  And I got Girl Unmoored, by Jennifer Gooch Hummer, which recently won a 2013 Maine Literary Award.  

Paul Doiron

Of course, the biggest score of the afternoon was a signed copy of Paul Doiron's latest thriller, Massacre Pond.  His publisher provided copies even though the book doesn't officially "launch" for another couple of days so I've been feeling smugly ahead of the curve, curled up with my latest Mike Bowditch installment!

One of the biggest draws of the day was Farmer Minor and his Pot Belly Pig, Daisy, who apparently loves being read to.  I was a little concerned about the pig, frankly.  As you know from my earlier post about cute animals (Never Compete With a Blind Raccoon, 3/11/13), it's a real hazard for authors.  However, Daisy conducted her business in a nearby barn, kids and authors alike were happy, and a great day was had by all. 

And in Daisy's case, a great nap was had!  For a complete list of all the authors who attended Books in Boothbay this year, with links to their websites and descriptions of their books, please click here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Extreme Randomness

Driving along the interstate in Maine right now this is what you see:  lupines!  They are such contrarian, persnickety plants.  Dig one up by its roots and transplant it in a carefully tended garden filled with rich, composty loam, and they'll perish.  But toss a few seeds along the side of the road, or among rocks on a steep slope (I'm thinking Saddleback Mountain, for example, where the lupines grow thick) and they take over.

I have a few in my front, full-sun beds, and I try not to over-love them.  As soon as they sense you hovering they twist in the opposite direction.  Wilt just a bit. A detached, almost indifferent gardener, does well for lupines, which are remarkably like teenagers.

It's amazing to observe when teenagers open up and when they shut down.  You know that glazed over look?  As if you've become a Human Power Point Presentation.  Dullness incarnate.  I try to avoid it at all costs professionally.

As a visiting author meeting students at schools, one of the strategies that's worked for me is to get the kids talking about slang.  Specifically, their slang.

Now, I'll warn you:  be prepared for the explosion.  It's very hard to control the conversation once the kids get going.  I've seen teachers become visibly nervous as the responses become increasingly animated, everyone starts talking at once, and the decorum which usually accompanies a visiting author visit breaks down.  But oh my goodness, this is fun.  And if you write for kids, it's like mining and striking gold.

Two new words I picked up at my last school visit:  swag and dime.

"Oh, I know swag," I said, when the kids told me about it.  "That's like if you go to the Vanity Fair after party at the Academy Awards, and there are all these gift bags at your seat at the table filled with expensive chocolates or cosmetics.  That's swag."  The kids burst out laughing.

"Uh, no.  Swag is like, game.  As in swagger.  A really hot, cool guy has swag."  Their teacher, my contemporary, spoke up.

"So you'd say, 'He's so swag," she said.  The kids laughed again.

"It's a noun," they explained patiently.  (I know: how could we be so dumb?)  "He's GOT swag."

But of course.

"Swagalicious," one boy commented.

"Oh my god, don't tell her that!" another said.  "That's so wrong!"

Note:  be aware that there are always a few jokers out there who want to steer you in the wrong direction.  Always kid-test your slang with trusted kid readers before inserting into your kid novel.

"But you know, you could have a character that says swagalicious, which is how we see that he's a total nerd trying to sound cool but getting it completely wrong," one student suggested.

Note:  I may very well use that.  Brilliant suggestion.

Then, there was dime.  I had no clue.  After swag, I certainly wasn't going to suggest that they were referring to currency.

"Dime means great.  Ten out of ten.  She's a dime," the kids told us.

"He's so dime?" the teacher suggested.  This did not even draw laughter.  More like sad shakes of the head.

Before I fire up the computer and plug my newly learned slang into whatever story I'm writing, I usually run it by my own kids.  However, my kids are no longer ... kids.  They are college-age young adults. The marketing target of the genre most recently dubbed "new adult."

And not only have they never heard this middle and high school patter ... they have their own.

Which brings me to Woo Girls and biddies.

Now, Woo Girls, while they are often intoxicated and loud, are actually girl-power-gal-pals.  The Urban Dictionary definition is "A woman usually between the ages of 18-24 who shows her excitement and fun that she is having with her friends by exalting with a "WOOO" usually in unison with 4/5 other woo girls."  An entire episode of the comedy series How I Met Your Mother was devoted to this phenomenon:

Woo Girls Wooing

Biddies, I have learned, while they might "woo," are not Woo Girls.  Biddies are the counterparts to bros, (who are commonly male pals, buds, good friends, but the term can also apply to alpha male idiots who are posers) and they are NOT about girl power:  they are about the guys.  Their compass on a Saturday night points "guys."  They make plans based on where the guys will be.  A biddy will ditch her girlfriends in an instant in pursuit of a guy.

Strong women disdain biddies, I am told.

This was not the definition of a biddy as I knew it.  I thought it was an old lady.  And it is, in Webster's.  I was also informed that a biddy will usually dress provocatively, and might be spotted in Lulu's.  Which, for those who care, are very expensive leggings which one wears to supposedly work out, but that true athletes scoff at.

Anyway.  The research continues ....

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I'm Your Neighbor

I spent a sunny afternoon playing tourist in Portland, Maine yesterday.  I poked into Miccuci's to load up on Italian ingredients and wines, then walked the length of Commercial Street all the way to the Bam Bam Bakery (gluten-free!)  This is the route you take for glimpses of Casco Bay and cruise ships unloading day trippers, a taste of chowdah or lobstah, and Maine-ish gifts ranging from blueberry jam to deep sea diving helmets.

This is the Person From Away view of Portland, but as the folks who actually live there know, there's way more going on in the "port city." Stroll a few blocks off Commercial Street, and check out the halal store.  Stand outside the public schools and listen to kids converse in languages you can't easily identify.  Visit the Catholic cathedral and watch women and girls in body-masking hijab stroll by. Immigrants and refugees from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East have been making Portland their home during the last three decades, and influencing the culture of the city.

This shift is the impetus and focus behind a year-long, city-wide "read" of books focusing on the new arrivals community.  I'm Your Neighbor is primarily composed of children's books, but  also includes non-fiction collections of essays as well as novels for older readers.  Saturday, May 25th, marked the official kickoff to the community read, which includes Out of Nowhere.

The University of Southern Maine bookstore carries the entire collection, and was on hand with plenty of books.  The Portland Public Library also has multiple copies, as well as other area bookstores.

Dr. Krista Aronson, Professor of Psychology at Bates College, is the I'm Your Neighbor Project Scholar and spoke to students who attended the kickoff event.

Students from Casco and Deering High Schools with copies of Out of Nowhere.

Kirsten Cappy (left) of The Curious City, along with author/illustrator Anne Sibley O'Brien is the driving force behind I'm Your Neighbor. Here's Kirsten with author Frederick Lipp, whose book, Bread Story, is part of the community read.

Here I am with author Terry Farish (left) whose book The Good Braider, about a Sudanese refugee girl, is part of the community read.
For a complete schedule of I'm Your Neighbor events, visit their website.  Next up is on July 11th at Rines Auditorium at the Portland Public Library, when Terry Farish will be joined by hip hop artist O.D. Bonny and A Company of Girls.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Not an Ordinary Day

On an ordinary day I'm usually alone for hours with imaginary people, tapping away at the computer.  This is fine, but it definitely gets a little lonely, and sometimes you wonder:  is anyone out there actually reading these stories?

Then, there are the Not Ordinary Days, when I visit schools and libraries and meet breathing-talking-laughing readers, and it's AMAZING.

Yesterday was one of those.

It started off at Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. This is where I found the wonderful Kenny Brechner, who put this day together.  Kenny had read my new book, Out of Nowhere, and thought it would be a good fit for high school readers.
Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers

Kenny's also pretty savvy about the realities of school library budgets, and is keenly aware that rural schools can't afford to purchase scores of hardcover books for readers or fork out big fees to visiting authors.  So, he found a sponsor, Franklin Savings Bank, to pay for the books, and when I agreed to donate my time, we were off.  Kenny was my fearless driver for the day, and took me everywhere I needed to be, on time!

We began at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, where they put together a whole day of activities surrounding diversity and immigration issues.  Mt. Blue is currently under construction, so it was a bit dicey finding the entrance, but once we made our way in we were amazed at the beautiful space created for the students.  The cafeteria, usually not a high point for any public school, is more like an airy college student center, with lofty ceilings and bright, natural light pouring in.

We were led to this room I can only describe as an amphitheater.  It was filled with kids who had read, or were reading, Out of Nowhere, and I had a full hour with them, reading from the book and answering questions.  In the audience were four young women, now in college, who had graduated from Lewiston High School (Lewiston was the inspiration for much that transpires in Out of Nowhere) two years ago, and it was a real privilege to hear from them and get their insights into their community.

From left: Allie Butler, Lindsay Profunno, Veronica Beaudoin
and Sydnie Racine, all LHS grads.
Following my book talk, there was a panel discussion that included the Lewiston High grads, a rep from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, a rep from Maine Civil Rights Workshops, and folks from Hope Acts, a group in Portland providing support to newly arrived immigrants and refugees.  Several of the panelists were asylum seekers from Burundi who have recently come to Maine.  I think for most of the students, it was the first time they'd met anyone who have had the type of life experiences these men have had.
Mt. Blue panel discussion.
There was a lot more going on after that ... including some Somali cooking demonstrations, which I was very sorry to miss ... but Kenny and I were off to our next appointment at Mt. Abram High School, in Strong, Maine.

You can't make that up:  Strong, Maine.  It's really the name of a town.  Love it.

Mt. Abram High School, with only 254 students, encompasses a huge, rural district that borders Canada in places.  Some students live so far from the school, that during the week they live with host families, and only return home to their parents on weekends.  Some students travel close to 50 miles, one way, on the bus to school each morning.  When Kenny and I arrived, we were greeted by librarian Lori Littlefield, who told me I was the first author who had ever visited Mt. Abram.  
Me with Lori Littlefield
When you visit a school where the kids have already read your book, the discussion literally vaults to a whole new level.  You can really "get into it," and they can tell you what they liked and didn't like, what they thought of particular characters, and ask probing questions about choices you made as an author.  Why did you tell the story from that point of view?  What was the inspiration for that character?

It's not very often that a school district can afford to put multiple copies of a hardcover book into the hands of every kid who wants to read it ... but every student in that room had read Out of Nowhere.  They came prepared with terrific questions, and I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed them.  And how deeply I appreciate all the effort that went into making those books available to those kids.

I also coaxed some great info out of them.  One of my favorite questions to ask kids is about slang, and see if they can teach me some new "kid speak" I haven't heard before.  My favorite from yesterday was "mint."  As in "mint condition."  For example, you might say to a friend, "How're you doing?"  And he'll reply, "I'm mint."  Or just, "Mint."  Which translates to:  "I'm doing great.  Top of the world.  Couldn't be better."

If you'd asked me how I was feeling as Kenny and I wrapped up our day of school visits yesterday, I'd have to say:  "Mint."
At Mt. Abram High in Strong, Maine

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Best Thing Ever

To say I love to read is such an understatement. Books, stories, literature, have been my way into the world.  I honestly don't know who I would have become without the books in my life.  Possibly something not so good, because the written word has been such an outlet for me.  There's a great passage in Maria Semple's latest novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" where the protagonist is advised to continue with her creative pursuits, because if she doesn't she's likely to become a menace to society.


My love/passion/need for books informed my parenting. I held picture books before my newborn's still-unfocused eyes, before he had the strength to hold his own head upright.  It was a big, big moment in our home when we were reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to him for the millionth time and asked him to point to the picture of the moon and he actually raised his chubby infant finger and planted it on the round, gold orb on the page. (His sister insists this was merely a coincidence and we have been over-praising his minor achievements for far too long, but that's a blog post for another day ... )  The best moments of my life have been spent with my childrens' warm bodies tucked in close to me while we read together.

So the notion of a child without a book pains me, literally.  The idea that a child might never know the joy of owning his or her personal book is so sad.  The excitement I see on childrens' faces when they hold their own books is deeply moving.

This week, two special authors have brought my attention to efforts to bring books and children together.  This is great work, this is life-changing, and I share it with you here.  Pass it on, support them if you can:

Middle-grade author, Donna Gephart (her most recent book is Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen) recently participated in the "Kids in Need - Books in Deed" program, which purchases books for children and brings writers into their schools. What a gift: not only to have one of Donna's laugh-out-loud books in hand, but to actually meet her!

Another middle-grade author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt (author of One for the Murphys) identified, while she was researching her novel, that foster kids often never own their own books.  She's created a website which brings new books and social workers together, so that the social workers can choose books for their clients and give them out ... free to the kids. It's called the Book Train, and is just "leaving the station," so to speak.

In future posts here, I'll share with you the books I'm donating to Book Train.  This week, I'm mailing off a new copy of the Newbery winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.  In case you haven't read it yet, it's a beautiful story.

I like to imagine some child snuggling into bed with it ...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Spying on Writers

For a month, I’ve retreated to a slower rhythm.

We’ve rented a place on an island in Florida, and while we’re still working (thanks to the Internet/personal computers/WiFi) we look up from our screens to watch low-flying squadrons of pelicans, or take “study breaks” to bicycle to the grocery store for the very necessary limes and avocados.

I confess: I’m not getting as much done as I would have at home, where the latest snowstorm would have definitely kept me more securely fastened to the desk near the lovely woodstove in my office.  I’m learning that cold is a better inducement to work than palm trees.  But I have been getting a little help from some good old fashioned peer pressure:  namely, the writer across the lake.

Every morning, when I get up at what I perceive is the “crack of dawn,” his light already shines brightly from his kitchen and casts an arrowed reflection across the lake at our house.  Ringed by cottages and trees that don’t grow in Maine, it’s a little lake, and you can easily see your neighbors.  That’s how I know he’s a “he,” and a writer.  I can see him sitting at a long table as he holds a pen/pencil and occasionally turns pages.  Plus, this island is infested with writers.  I only just learned that RandyWayne White, of the “Doc Ford” series, lives in this neighborhood (although this guy isn’t him.)

Granted, maybe the guy across the lake is reading the Miami Herald and doing the crossword, but I live by imagination so bear with me.  And if you’re wondering just how close these houses are and how a woman who can’t make out the directions on the pasta box without her reading glasses can see into her neighbor’s kitchen I’ll just confess again:  I took out the binoculars one morning.  I mean, if it’s okay to zoom in close to the herons and osprey and cormorants that populate the lake, why not the humans?  And yes, I would get more done on these new chapters I promised my agent if I spent more time writing and less time spying.  But I want to know:  who IS this person up before the light every single day?

My advisor in college, a poet, once revealed to our class that in order to get any writing done he was always at his desk at home by five a.m.  This guaranteed him a solid couple of hours of uninterrupted, quiet creativity before the maelstrom of young children and breakfast and packed lunches and heading out the door to begin his “workday” as a professor.

When you’re a 21 year old student, the idea of being at your desk, ready to work by 5:00 a.m., seems nightmarish.  Isn’t that still “night?”  It must be, since you only just went to bed two hours earlier ….  Why would anyone inflict that on themselves?

This image … of my advisor, padding about his silent, dark house in stocking feet so as not to wake anyone, brewing coffee, filling pages at a desk illuminated by a single lamp … stayed with me.  Possibly more than the advice on crafting sentences.  It spoke to commitment.  To a strange, near-obsessive need to fill pages, tell stories, make things up.  Willing to sacrifice sleep and salary (because except for the handful of bestselling authors, this DOESN’T make us rich) and endure criticism from strangers.

Sometimes, in the dark before first light, as I wait for the coffee to finish brewing and then for the caffeine to kick in, I don’t, I really don’t, want to open the file for wherever I left off the previous day.  Sometimes the words I labored over for hours clang upon rereading and I’m deeply, seriously discouraged and not at all confident that I can pull off another paragraph, let alone another book.

But then I look up and see someone’s else’s lamp burn, and it reminds me that doing this requires simply doing it.  String a few words together, fill one page, then another.  Return to the desk tomorrow.

Like the guy across the lake.

Okay.  Back to work.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Never Compete With a Blind Raccoon

So with a brand new novel released last month, I’ve been scheduling “events” and signing books.  You do that, with a book just out.   Visit a few bookstores, attend a few readings and parties and scribble your name on the title page and thank everyone (quite sincerely, as a matter of fact) not only for showing up but also for shelling out for a hardcover copy.  It is truly amazing how grateful you feel when you see people … some who aren’t even your mother’s friends … fill the chairs at a reading or line up to purchase an autographed book.   You want to hug them all and invite them home for dinner.

In the years when I have a new novel out,  I gratefully accept invitations to sign books and speak on panels and visit schools and Skype … that sort of thing.  The reality of the writing business is that it’s not enough to simply create a book and let your publisher do all the promoting:  you have to be willing to put some energy into selling the work, too.

Of course, there are productive and not-so-productive uses of your time, and while I’m definitely no expert, this is my third go-round with all this and I do have one important piece of advice for newcomers to Authorhood.

Never compete with a blind raccoon.

I saw someone try. You don’t want to go there.

It happened just the other day, at Bailey’s Grocery Store on Sanibel Island, Florida.  Bailey’s is one of those lovely local institutions which has been here forever and has this wonderful tradition of hosting local authors.  On any given day when you pop in to pick up a key lime pie or some fresh shrimp, there’s a table set up near the entrance, between the grocery carts and the display of freshly baked coffee cakes, where a hopeful novelist/artist/memoirist sits, surrounded by copies of his or her newly minted novel/memoir/picture book, signing pen at the ready. 

It’s a tough gig.  People have certain expectations when they enter a grocery store.  They’re thinking about dinner and whether they’re out of toilet paper at home.  They’re not on a literary quest.  They’re not necessarily in the mood to make conversation … let alone eye contact … with some random writer peddling her work.  If you decide to do the author thing at Bailey’s, you have to be prepared to smile brightly at a lot of people who will walk right on by.  You can’t appear overly eager and grasping when someone pauses to ask if you’re selling Girl Scout Cookies.

Of course, all that changes if you bring a fuzzy animal.  Then, you can guarantee a mob.  That’s what I witnessed at Bailey’s the other day, when I wandered in for limes and had to navigate around a crowd of oohing cooing women and girls.

When I pushed in closer to get a look, I saw a woman holding the most adorable little raccoon.  He had his eyes closed, and was contentedly snuggled in her lap, which, if you know what absolute fiends raccoons can be, was a miracle.  He was, she explained, the hero of her picture book (displayed on the table behind her) and had been blinded when someone hit him with a golf club.  She subsequently rescued him, wrote a picture book about him, and the story had just won a Florida state award for children’s non-fiction writing.  His name was Trouper.

I no longer have children of picture book age, yet I almost bought a copy; that’s how cute the little fella was.  I was in a hurry, yet I lingered, and longed to pet him.  What a champ!  What a “poster child” for the importance of kindness to animals!

And, of course, the writer in me couldn’t help but notice: what a genius idea!  Cute, fuzzy animal.  I would have to get one for my next signing.  Once I wrote a book about a cute, fuzzy animal ….

I spent so much time admiring Trouper, that now I was late.  As I sped off toward the produce I noticed something:  another author, on the opposite side of the baked goods display.  He was dressed island-author-smart-casual, with light stone khakis, sandals, and a bright print shirt.  He had neatly stacked copies of his books … murder mysteries set on Sanibel … and even a professional looking poster.  He paced, restless as a lion, behind the table where his work was displayed. 

Not one single person approached him.  Not even me, and I understood his agony all too well.  Usually I stop by author tables, even when I have less-than-zero interest in the book, just to chat.  I'm also one of those people who search for friends' book in stores, and turn them, cover side facing, on the shelves.  But on that day, in a hurry, I didn't pause for the island author.  I know: shame on me.

But what folly!  Had he known?  Had anyone thought to tell him that he would be going toe to toe with Trouper, the most adorable disabled raccoon in the Sunshine State?  Maybe he thought (in error) that the crowds drawn to Trouper might result in some traffic at his table?  Just the opposite occurred.  They used up their limited energy for grocery store authors with Trouper, then sped off to buy food.

Here’s what I’ve learned about signings:  unless you’re fairly well known and can draw a crowd, or bring a fuzzy animal, only schedule signings where you live, where your mother lives, and where your sister lives.  There, at least, they can coerce their friends to show up, and you can count on mom to buy a carton of books.

If you decide to go ahead and put yourself out there anyway, at random venues where you can’t guarantee an interested audience?  Well … you might want to keep a stash of Girl Scout Cookies handy.  Just in case.

Trouper’s story is real, and you can read more about him HERE

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tough Enough

It’s time for me to tell this story.

When my first novel came out five years ago, my publisher, Random House, hosted a lovely reception at the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia to toast several of us “debut” children’s authors.  It was in a large, elegant hotel room and there were crab cakes and one of those large wheels of runny brie similar to the type Anne Lamott describes in the chapter on “Publishing” in Bird by Bird.  Editors, agents, publishing poo-bahs, writers: all were there. 

It was one of those platinum moments when one feels very good about oneself, professionally.

At some point in the evening I was introduced to a woman, and when my eyes lit on her name tag I almost gasped.  Let’s call her SA.  For Snarky Agent.

Several years earlier when I was searching for agents I had sent her a draft of a manuscript (which ultimately became the debut novel we were all toasting that evening) which she swiftly and rudely rejected.  Very rudely rejected.  As a matter of fact, it was the only rejection I had ever received which made me cry.  It was mean spirited.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  It was unnecessary on all levels, because she was, and is, a very successful agent with a stable of very successful authors.

And that evening, there she was, sidling up to me for an opportunity to schmooze and lavish praise on my little book.

You dream about these sorts of moments.  Not every day, but on those bitter days, those chew-the-gristle-of-past-hurts days, you imagine what you’ll say to so-and-so who did you wrong.  You’ll wield your triumphs in her face.  You’ll trumpet your success.  “The best revenge is doing well!” you’ll cry, as you breach the walls of past disappointment and vanquish your enemy.

And oh, reader, how she asked for it.  She looked at my name tag, and a curious expression came over her face.

“Haven’t we met?” she half-asked, half-mused.  She knew the name, but from where … ?  It never occurred to her it was from her “slush pile.”

Here’s what I did:  nothing. 

“No, I don’t think we’ve met,” I answered, and exchanged some stupid small talk with her before retreating back to the brie.

Here’s why I did it, and it’s not because I’m noble, because I’m definitely not:  because that’s the business.  It’s an opinion-based, subjective business, and even if you win the Nobel Prize, someone out there is gonna shrug and say, “Oh, I really can’t get into his/her novels.”  Someone will take issue with your narrator while someone else loves your narrator.  Some will call your book “important,” while someone else will call it a missed opportunity.

In the midst of that lovely, praise-filled party, I was reminded, before I became dangerously pleased with myself, that there’s always another opinion.  And while you can’t let the turkeys get you down, you also can’t let the voices of the angels go to your head. 

In the end, it’s just about the work.  About being alone with your story, and doing the best you can, and if you string a couple of good sentences together that’s a productive day.  If someone reads it and likes it, that’s a good day. 

My third book is set for release next week, and the reviews are streaming in.  I’m grateful to have a wonderful editor at Knopf/Random House and a wonderful agent.  I’m grateful to be reviewed, grateful for the good reviews… and deeply miffed by the brain-addled idiots who missed the point and wrote bad ones. (See?  I told you I’m not noble.  Or mature.)

My teacher in college and at Bread Loaf, the poet Robert Pack, asked me long ago, “Are you tough enough to make it in this business?” 

Thirty years later, I’d have to tell him:  nope.  Thin-skinned as ever.  Sensitive as ever.

But every day, I return to the blank page.  The hours alone, the stiff back from sitting too long, stringing sentences together.  And strangely enough, I find that deeply satisfying.

Friday, January 11, 2013


Today is the 10th anniversary of the "Many and One" rally in Lewiston, Maine.  It's brilliantly sunny this morning, like that day.  With one big difference.

I remember cold.  Scary cold.  The type that makes you wonder if you’ve made a critical, frostbite-causing mistake by choosing the thin cotton gloves instead of the thick ski mittens.

Standing outside in the long, straggling line of people wrapped around the auditorium on the Bates College campus the afternoon of January 11, 2003, I worried about frostbite not only to my fingers and toes but to my kids, ages 10 and 9.  What were we thinking? I wondered to myself.  They’re going to freeze out here, and for what?  Do they really get it?

But how could we not bring them?  This was the “Many and One” rally, an enormous community effort to respond to thinly veiled threats and hate speech that had been directed at Lewiston’s Somali community by members of a national white supremacist group, the World Church of the Creator.  This was the result of the Mayor of Lewiston’s letter in the local paper, asking the Somali newcomers to “exercise some discipline” and tell their friends and relatives to stay away because Lewiston was “maxed-out.”  This was the response of the people of Maine to hatred and bigotry, the land of Joshua Chamberlain and Harriet Beecher Stowe speaking out against those haters “from away.”

This was turning out to the largest police action in the state’s history.  I’d never seen so many cops.

But the kids seemed completely unaware of the cold, the armed presence, and the “politics” which had led to our attendance that day.  They were having too much fun playing with their friends in the snow outside the auditorium.

Eventually, the long line snaked forward, and we found seats in the cavernous auditorium.  We were lucky: about 1000 people had to remain outside when the fire code limits were met.  Sound from within was piped out and hot chocolate was served and … wow.  Those people stayed.  In that bitter cold, they remained outside in order to hear what was said, in order to simply be present.

For the life of me, I can’t remember specifics about the speeches made that afternoon. There were a lot of elected officials.  There was chanting, people asking Where’s the Mayor? Because he wasn’t present.  There was serious applause when young people from the community, Somali youth, stood in front of that crowd and spoke into a microphone in a language not yet their own.  Most of all, there was a sense of wonder that permeated the whole setting.  Strangers kept looking at each other and grinning and saying, “Can you believe this?  Can you get over this crowd?”

It was a good day to be from Maine

My kids tell me they remember the big snow piles outside the auditorium that day.  I’m content that when they hear or read about the “Many and One” rally in the future, they’ll be content that their parents made sure they were there.

Of course, on the other side of town, at the armory, there was a very different sort of rally going on that day.  Members of the World Church of the Creator held forth there, and writer Crash Barry managed to “crash” that assembly and get a close look at those folks and what was said.  I post it here, for contrast:

Tonight, at the Lewiston Public Library, there’s a gathering to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the rally. It promises to be a balmy 25 degrees.  I don’t believe any police presence is required. 

What a difference a decade makes.

Maria Padian’s next novel, “Out of Nowhere,” due out from Random House on February 13, 2013, was inspired by events in Lewiston ten years ago.  It is the story of the friendship that develops between a white boy from Lewiston and a Somali refugee boy who both play on the same high school soccer team.