"Hard Rain" by Tony Hoagland

After I heard It's a Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
played softly by an accordion quartet
through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,
I understood there's nothing
we can't pluck the stinger from,

nothing we can't turn into a soft drink flavor or a t-shirt.
Even serenity can become something horrible
if you make a commercial about it
using smiling, white-haired people

quoting Thoreau to sell retirement homes
in the Everglades, where the swamp has been
drained and bulldozed into a nineteen-hole golf course
with electrified alligator barriers.

You can't keep beating yourself up, Billy
I heard the therapist say on television
to the teenage murderer,
About all those people you killed
You just have to be the best person you can be,

one day at a time

and everybody in the audience claps and weeps a little,
because the level of deep feeling has been touched,
and they want to believe that
the power of Forgiveness is greater
than the power of Consequence, or History.

Dear Abby:
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
are covered with blood-
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present;
Should I say something?
Signed, America.

I used to think I was not part of this,
that I could mind my own business and get along,

but that was just another song
that had been taught to me since birth

whose words I was humming under my breath,
as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.

(Courtesy of The Writer's Almanac)

Discount Theatre Tickets: "Floyd and Clea under the Western Sky"

Playwrights Horizons is once again kind enough to offer a discount on their new show to my blog readers. From the press release:


A new musical
Book and lyrics by David Cale
Music by Jonathan Kreisberg and David Cale
Directed by Joe Calarco
It’s a freewheeling musical journey from Montana to Austin (with a side trip to Hollywood) when a burnt-out former Country & Western star (Mr. Cale) joins forces with a twenty-year-old free spirit with an electrifying voice (Ms. Mary Faber, Avenue Q). Their meeting and unlikely friendship, and the musical partnership that arises from it, form a tale of sweet heartbreak – a parable about finding the strength, against all odds, to keep on keepin’ on.
Performances Tuesday – Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.
  • Order by December 5, and all seats are $45.00 (reg. $65) for performances November 10 – December 17 with code FCAL. Additional performance Monday, November 20.
  • Thanksgiving Weekend Special! All seats $40.00 (reg. $65) for performances Friday, Nov. 24 thru Sunday, Nov. 26 with code FCAL. Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org, or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (noon - 8 p.m. daily), or use code at the Ticket Central Box Office 416 West 42nd Street (noon – 8 p.m. daily).

Hope some of you get the chance to see it, and enjoy!


Help Us Name A Book!

The talented Elizabeth Bunce* has written a YA novel that I'm editing -- a book-length retelling of "Rumplestiltskin" that has been described as "a mystery, spun with a ghost story, woven with a romance, and shot through with fairy tale." It is very, very good, and will be published in Spring 2008.

But you will note that I did not include the title in that summary, and that is because -- we don't have one! Or rather, we have lots of them, or lots of elements of them, and we're trying to find the right combination of elements to convey the mystery, ghost story, romance et al. If you'd like to help us out with this quest, please head on over to Elizabeth's LJ and weigh in. There's chocolate and galleys in it if we pick yours. Many thanks!
* (Trivia for my quiz-bowl friends: Elizabeth is the sister of Scott Bunce from Iowa State.)
** (Trivia for my non-quiz-bowl friends: All pet hamsters are descended from a single female wild golden hamster found with a litter of twelve young in Syria in 1930.)

Taking Care of Business

A few housekeeping things:

  • I should have said earlier -- it was great to meet many of you readers at the Rutgers conference this past weekend! I hope you all had a good time and got home safely.
  • I just updated my website with a full FAQ archive, a brief biography plus trivia, and my 2007 conference appearances. I am working on posting my Michigan talk, but the effort is complicated by the fact I have to upload a two-megabyte PDF document to go with it, and my Verizon webspace doesn't seem to be able to accommodate that. . . . If anyone can recommend a webserver that could host the doc, it would be much appreciated.
  • A reminder that the Children's Books and Religion group will be meeting this Sunday at 3 p.m. at Park Slope United Methodist Church to discuss Skellig by David Almond. Everyone is welcome; e-mail me for directions or more information.
  • Also, we had such a grand time at the first Children's Books Bloggers' Drinks Night that the second will be held Monday, November 6, again at Sweet & Vicious in Soho, again beginning at 6 p.m. And CONTEST! I will buy a drink for the person who comes up with the best alternate name for said drinks night; the name must contain fewer syllables (and especially fewer plurals). I nominate "Happy Bunny Hour," but I'm sure you all can do better. Take it away!
  • Now reading: Skellig; The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis; The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. (Man, I could use a good romantic comedy about now. . . .)
  • And finally, a delicious and easy autumn dessert: Pumpkin Pie Crumble Cake.

An Explanation of the Experiment

(Note: I critique and even praise my own poem here, which is kind of unforgivably self-important and self-indulgent; but I'm always interested in the process of writing and the reasons writers make the choices they do, and it's rare to see these choices discussed step-by-step, so I hope some of you share that interest and will find this interesting in turn. Thanks for your patience.)

Last week I posted two versions of a proto-poem called "At the Corner," which I labelled "An Experiment":

In the rain on Prince Street this evening
I thought I saw someone I'd loved.
That is "had loved," in the past tense,
as it is all past and no present.
But still I felt my heart catch
and pull as I looked closer:

at an unknown man,
not my once-only,
and this one far too usual --
with a too-loud laugh as I passed him
and an umbrella like everyone else's.

But I felt the pain of that pull long after,
and the sweetness too:
my pleasure, still, at his memory,
and my sadness it's all I have.

This is how it began: It was raining, and I was walking to the subway, thinking my usual on-the-way-to-the-subway thoughts about dinner, and the pretty shoes in the store window, and the work I needed to do when I got home that night. I passed a guy on Houston Street who looked like a man I had dated in the last year; I thought for a moment it was him, and my heart actually physically seemed to thump oddly and hard, and then I realized it wasn't, and I was past him two steps later. But my heart still hurt, as if it were straining to leap out of my body back toward the guy, and trying to articulate this vague and useless ache for my rational mind, I thought the line I felt my heart catch on his figure.

And while my real heart was still dwelling on the misidentification and real memories of the man and the sadness that went with that, my writing brain thought, That's a good line. So it started taking notes on how I felt as I moved down into the subway station, and constructing a narrative in which that ache could be communicated to another person. (Annie of Maud Newton had a similar experience recently: The Thing that Watches.) I swiped my MetroCard through the gate and let a train go by so I could sit on a bench and write this:
"I was walking down Houston Street in the rain today and I thought I saw someone I'd loved. That is had loved -- in the past tense -- as it didn't work and we're no longer in touch; but still I felt my heart catch on his figure and hold there till I looked closer, my heart thumping . . . It wasn't him, of course, just a random man beneath an umbrella; but still I felt the pain of that tug for minutes after, and the sweetness, too"
At this point another train came and I got on it; but I was thinking about the situation all the way to dinner, both mourning and enjoying the ache. (Of course I knew I was dragging the painful emotion out for my own writerly purposes, but the image of the heart catching was good and interesting enough, and the original emotion real enough, that I didn't mind exploiting it.) And as soon as I reached my destination, I wrote, "my pleasure, still, at his memory, and my sadness that it's all I have." And then I had dinner with company (not a date, I'll note) and let the feeling dissipate.

When I reached home a couple hours later, I typed the lines up and looked them over. And then I more or less did TRUCK #4: I asked myself, "What is this about? What do I want this vignette to do?" The answer was, "It's about that tugging feeling on the sidewalk, and recreating that feeling so you have it captured for yourself and a reader feels it too." Given that, the lines needed to be sharper, tighter, less prosy and more exact; I wasn't yet thinking of it as a possible poem, but I knew "we're no longer in touch" and "random man beneath an umbrella" were the wrong tone of voice for what I wanted. And on a story level, to put the emotions in narrative order, there needed to be the surprise of seeing my ex-dear one, and the second surprise and disappointment of the realization the guy wasn't him; the street guy needed to be shown to be inferior to the real man, and the disappointment had to proved durable. And finally, of course, I had to use that image of my heart catching on him, as that inspired the whole thing in the first place.

So I rewrote, a word here, a phrase there. "Houston" became "Prince Street," which is one block south, for the romantic associations of "Prince" (good eye, Anonymous!) and the tautness of having one syllable versus two. I kept the "tense" line, but tossed out the explanation of the end of the relationship as unimportant -- the only fact relevant to this poem was the lack of him in my life now, and that again felt tighter as "all past and no present," with the absolutes reinforcing the surprise of seeing his face again.

Then, rather than telling the reader about the suspense I felt as I looked closer, I tried to create it by simultaneously tightening and lengthening the pause before discovery: From "I felt my heart catch on his figure and hold there till I looked closer, my heart thumping . . . It wasn't him" to "I felt my heart catch on his image and pull as I looked closer: at an unknown man." When this is read aurally, I hear the pause created by the space after the colon as more abrupt, and therefore louder, than the softer pause that follows the trailing away of an ellipsis (an effect stolen from "Ozymandias"). More importantly, all the drama is in the looking, not the description of my heart thumping; so the description actually dissipated a little of that drama, by distracting the reader from the mystery of whether he was him to the less important issue (narratively, for this moment) of how I felt about it.

Then came the big reveal: Not Him. And I had to make the reader see both the real guy and the ghostly man who I mistook him for, and see why I was disappointed. I confess I remembered very little of the actual guy, as my mind had been filled with "Is that--? No-- Oh. " So the spirit of James Frey and I invented details -- the laugh, which I plausibly could have heard as I passed by; the umbrella, when in fact I think he didn't carry one. But both were useful as external signifiers of his inferiority to my imaginary man. (I briefly got obsessed with using "an undistinguished umbrella," which expressed precisely the idea that he wasn't special enough, but the alliteration and multiple syllables made the phrase a bit ridiculous, and I didn't want humor at this point in the poem. "Like everyone else's" showed him to be one of the common herd, and contrasted nicely with "once-only" -- another phrase I liked a lot, for the double thought that this was "once," as in "once upon a time," as in "not now," and that he was once my only one, which, since he is "not my once-only," obviously is no longer true and tangs a bit.) (Rather more in the poem than it usually does in real life, I will say.) And the last lines stayed the same, other than changing "tug" to "pull" for consonance and smoothing "for minutes after" to the more elegant "long after."

Then came the thought that made this an experiment: This could be a poem. Generally I like the ideas in my infrequent poems, but not the writing in them; I am too prosy and straightforward by nature; I was not born under a poetic planet. (My favorite quote about poetry ever is from Tom Stoppard: "Poetry is the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.") But I love poetry for just its employment of the subtlety, brevity, and sinuousness I usually lack, and as most poems attempt to pin down an emotion, which was also my goal with this, my paragraph seemed like a worthy candidate for another assault on poetry.

So what would it need to be a poem? Line breaks, to start. I put in a break after every phrase, more or less, and divided the lines into three narrative acts, roughly "situation," "realization," and "reflection." And then the rhythm of each line became especially important; the long and conversational "I was walking on Prince Street this evening in the rain when" became the "In the rain on Prince Street this evening," with the parade of one-syllable words signalling tension, perhaps self-protectiveness; which was then explained by "I thought I saw someone I'd loved." (I think the next two lines about "had loved," still consisting almost entirely of one-syllable words, may be taking this tightness a bit far, to the point that the narrative voice sounds terribly repressed and possibly introduces doubt about the genuineness of the original love; but I haven't figured out whether or how to fix this yet.) I cut "on his figure/image" for the poem to speed into the drama of looking closer, but I kept it in the prose version because it could afford the phrase.

So I continued to fiddle well into the poem version, then went back and changed the prose version to match. By this time I was really hearing the words as the poem, so I put commas in the prose version to match the line breaks -- something I wish I hadn't done now, as it became prose trying to breathe like poetry, rather than following its own rhythm. And then I published it in both versions, to see if other people would respond to it and which version worked better.

Your votes? Six A's (prose), five B's (poem), and two ties. And my own? I'm sorry to say I don't think either one really succeeds in the end. The poem is more satisfying to me for the sound and drama of those line breaks, but the language of it is still terribly prosy -- the words have just one meaning, with no expansion, to use Stoppard's phrasing; or the words don't work hard enough, to use Melinda's comment. And the emotions I listed six paragraphs above? The only one that's really shown, not told, is (ironically, or perhaps significantly) the one with the details I invented, proving the real guy to be less worthy than my imaginary man.

But I am still pleased with it overall, for the individual thoughts and phrases I mentioned above, and because it got enough of that moment to serve as my personal palimpsest of it -- as the guy himself was the palimpsest for my former dear one. The writing not only sharpened the sweetness and sadness, but it distanced those emotions from me too, gave me the control over them as a writer that I didn't have walking down the street. And this, too, is a satisfaction, should that moment happen again: I'll smile still at his memory, and then at knowing I now have more.

FAQ #5: Do I have to submit the *first* two chapters?

I am immensely annoyed because I just wrote a long thoughtful post about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which I finished reading last week), touching on aesthetics and racism and moral points and Jane Smiley. And then Blogger ate my post, quotes and all, and licked its lips afterward, so it looks as if the writing is to be its own reward. Bah. But I want to post something, so here's FAQ #5, because again it's a quickie:

Do you prefer it always to be the first two chapters of the manuscript or can it be two chapters a bit further in provided we include the synopsis required of SQUID submissions?

You should always include the first chapter, because it doesn't matter what happens later in the book if you can't make me care about the characters at the beginning. And I really, really prefer to read the second chapter immediately after that, so I can see how you develop the situation you lay out in the first chapter. HOWEVER, if you feel the second chapter does not represent the action or tone or whatever of the novel so well as another chapter further in, you may certainly send along that other chapter instead. But you should recognize that you'll be jerking me out of the world you establish in the first chapter and forcing me to completely reorient myself in that later chapter; so you should be really confident that the later chapter is a better example of your book's overall strengths.

Best of luck to you!

Farewell, My Lovely

I regret to announce that yesterday afternoon, in the first game of Killer Klein Croquet ever played on the East Coast, I lost possession of the Frog to my father, Alan Klein, who becomes our new Interim Grand Champion.* Dad claimed an immediate lead and held it throughout the game, thanks to an easy course and several incredible wickets-in-one,** and even withstood a late attack from my Uncle John, who was trying to guard the final post for Aunt Carol. In the end, though, Dad took the Frog back to Missouri, where he will doubtless grow fat and happy rooting for the Chiefs and feasting on barbecued flies with Gates's sauce.***

Goodbye, my sweet Frog. Be safe and enjoy your Midwestern sojourn, and I'll bring you a slice and a hot dog the next time I come home. And Dad, remember: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown . . .

* "Interim" because there will never be a permanent Grand Champion.
** The magic of my Harry Potter cap, no doubt.
** The Frog, not my dad.

FAQ #4: How long can the chapters be in a chapter submission?

From a question by Elizabeth Boulware:

"A recent discussion began on the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Chat Board regarding the length of YA chapters, with the question specifically being is 72 pages for the first three chapters too long for a submission. The consensus of the published writers was that it was and what was more that a submission of that size would warrant an automatic rejection, regardless of the strength of the writing. . . . How long is too long?"

"Too long" is the point at which the editor decides to stop reading (which can happen as easily on page 7 as page 70). Enormously helpful, right? But it's true: The entire point of submitting chapters is to give the editor a taste of your writing and leave him or her wanting more -- wanting the whole manuscript, to be exact. Anything that causes us not to want that whole submission is not your friend, and "excessive length" is a definite candidate for the Enemies List.

Very few editors will reject a manuscript solely on the basis of length without even glancing at the writing: We're too trained to look for possibilities everywhere and in everything, too aware of what might grow from that first "You never know." That said, if I pull out a two-chapter submission that runs 50-odd pages, I'll think two things: (a) "Good lord, this final novel is going to be long," which could be wonderful but might also be exhausting; and more importantly (b) "The author better be able to justify the length of these chapters in the characters, action, and writing." If the author can justify it, I won't really care how long the chapters are, as I'll just want as much of the manuscript as I can get, period. And if the author can't -- well, again, I don't care how long the chapters are, as I'm turning it down anyway.

Sorry to be so cold-blooded about this, but I just went through my last month's submissions mail this week, and given that that required a whole valuable afternoon at work, I'm trying hard not to waste anyone's time -- my time in reading submissions that won't work for me, and the writer's time in requesting things I'm not truly and thoroughly excited about. Other editors, feel free to chime in with your own opinions.

In other news, I just finished The Sea of Monsters, Book Two of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" by Rick Riordan, and it was just as funny, action-filled, and cracktastically page-turning as the first book -- I haven't enjoyed a series this much since Hilary McKay's Casson novels. And it turns out I'll be attending the Rutgers One-on-One this year, as a replacement for Scholastic's Dianne Hess; if you read this and see me there, do say hello.

"At the Corner": An Experiment

A) In the rain on Prince Street this evening, I thought I saw someone I'd loved. That is "had loved," in the past tense, as it is all past and no present; but still I felt my heart catch on his image, and pull as I looked closer, at an unknown man, not my once-only, this one far too usual: with a too-loud laugh as I passed him, and an umbrella like everyone else's. But I felt the pain of that pull long after, and the sweetness too: my pleasure, still, at his memory, and my sadness it's all I have.

B) In the rain on Prince Street this evening
I thought I saw someone I'd loved.
That is "had loved," in the past tense,
as it is all past and no present.
But still I felt my heart catch
and pull as I looked closer:

at an unknown man,
not my once-only,
and this one far too usual --
with a too-loud laugh as I passed him
and an umbrella like everyone else's.

But I felt the pain of that pull long after,
and the sweetness too:
my pleasure, still, at his memory,
and my sadness it's all I have.


Post-Conference Post

I had a thoroughly lovely time at the Michigan SCBWI conference this past weekend. It was very well-organized; the people were nice; the weather and location were gorgeous; and I got through all forty pages of my talk plus some additions plus a few improvisations in sixty-one minutes flat. Take that, irony!

Special shout-outs to Leslie Helakoski for very literally going out of her way to get me to lunch with some friends on Friday; Gail Flynn for excellent organizing; Sandy Carlson, who set a new standard for friendly, cheerful, and selfless editor-assisting; Rosemary Stimola for interesting conversation and a great talk on the agent's role; Lisa Yee, who wasn't there, but who kindly let me use the editorial process for and early drafts from So Totally Emily Ebers as examples in my talk; everyone on this blog who told me what to talk about (I've got another one coming up in April -- any suggestions?); and R. J. Anderson, who I first encountered online in 1999, whose work I've been following since 2002 or thereabouts, and who I finally met this last weekend -- a friendship seven years in the making. My thanks to all!

The ten* TRUCKs from my talk, which will get posted probably toward the end of the month (*yes, I added another one):
  1. Write a one-line summary of the Action Plot of your book.
  2. List the first ten meaningful things your main character says or does.
  3. Write the flap copy.
  4. Create a chapter-by-chapter outline (or scene-by-scene, if you prefer).
  5. Run the Plot Checklist (see "The Essentials of Plot" on my website for details).
  6. Answer the question "What is it about?" with a one-sentence thesis statement for your book.
  7. Test every sentence against the question "What purpose does this serve?" (Note: This is the new one; it's super-harsh and tough, and may be better performed by an editor than an author. But it is a TRUCK.)
  8. Read the manuscript aloud.
  9. Keep a copy of everything.
  10. Give it time.

The Family's Reply

(a message received via e-mail on behalf of my current houseguest)

Dearest Frog,

We have seen the blog photos of your high living and wild times in Gotham, and like the Amish, we understand that it is necessary for a young frog to experience a different swamp as part of the maturation process.

We understand that you have met excitement and interesting people. Some have tried to give you a foreign French name to alter your true identity. But you have to be true to yourself . . .

Now we hope you will reflect on your lifestyle the past few months and determine if this fast living and neon nightlife is what the Good Lord has truly intended for one of Her greenest creatures.

We will be in NYC very soon. We have made arrangements with the airline to bring you back home to Iowa, green grass, trees, and stars. We hope you will come home with us.



Uncle John

Thoughts and Whims and Acronyms

Today was an exhausting but satisfying day, highlighted by two marathon in-person discussions with a translator and an illustrator, respectively. I sent my line-edit of the translation to said translator just before I went to England; he returned it to me on Monday with his comments; and we spent two and a half hours today happily hashing out our remaining points of disagreement, from word choices ("rashness" vs. "stupidity") to sentence structures to whether we really needed that detail about the house. The illustrator is writing her first picture book; every draft gets closer and tighter, but it isn't quite there yet, so we sat down to figure out the problems and brainstorm solutions. We test-drove a few of the TRUCKs (Techniques of Revision Used by Cheryl Klein*) I'm going to discuss this weekend, and I was pleased that they seemed to help . . . fingers crossed the Michigan audience finds them useful as well!
  • I figured out today that SQUID could be an acronym too: Submissions, Queries, and Useful (or Unsolicited :-) ) Interesting Documents. Hee! (I originally intended to change the code word every four months or so, just for the hell of it, but SQUID has proven too likeable and durable to let go -- I check my mailbox and think "Oh, four SQUIDs.")
  • I just accepted an invitation to speak at the Los Angeles SCBWI Spring Speakers Day on April 14, 2007. I'll also appear at the Pennsylvania SCBWI Meet-the-Editors Program on June 5, 2007.
  • The PSUMC Children's Books and Religion group will meet again on Sunday, October 29, at 3 p.m. to discuss Skellig by David Almond. All are welcome to attend.
  • The lovely Monica Edinger (teacher, author, and children's books maven) has a blog at last: Educating Alice.
  • An interesting article by Anita Silvey in SLJ about YA fiction and trends.
  • If you haven't seen the Fuse #8 discussion of SCBWI, it's been fascinating. I haven't joined in because I would mostly just say what Alvina said (though I have signed up two manuscripts I found at conferences), but all you writer-members may want to check it out.
  • My friend and former Carleton Quiz Bowl teammate Steve Jenkins will be on Jeopardy! next Wednesday, October 11.
  • I finally finished Lonesome Dove: loved it -- the first book that's actually made me cry in years -- but what a depressing ending! Now reading Brainiac; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which is marvelous, all show and no tell); and The Silver Chair, which I'm liking possibly the best of all the Narnia I've read thus far.
  • I switched over to Blogger beta last night, so now I get to tag things! Hurrah!
  • Pride and Prejudice: the Rap (gacked from AustenBlog)
All right, back to editing my talk!
* Note not "originated by Cheryl Klein"; I am using other people's wisdom right and left. I also contemplated TRACKED (Techniques of Revision and Analysis Cheryl Klein Employs Daily), TUCKER (Techniques Used by Cheryl Klein for Editorial Revision), and MUCKER (Methods . . . -- the acronym my authors probably find most appropriate).

Frog's Day Out

Hey, guys! I'm having a great time here in New York. A couple weeks ago, Cheryl took me for a grand day out. First we rode the F train into Manhattan . . .

Then we stopped to see my friends Patience and Fortitude at the New York Public Library.

My favorite musical? "SpamAlot"! (The French get exactly what's coming to them.) Cheryl and I had cheesecake at Junior's after our matinee.

Then we strolled through Times Square . . .
and caught the R train down to the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a beaut!

We finished the day off with a Mets game at Shea Stadium. I really tried to grab this one fly ball (because boy, I love catching flies!) . . . but it turns out I couldn't let go of my mallet. Darn.I'm having so much fun, I think I could stay in New York forever! Wish you were here!


The Frog

Running and Resolutions

It's hard to express how much I used to hate exercise. My father is a former high-school cross-country coach, and much of my adolescent rebellion was tied up in being as sedentary as possible. (Passive-aggressive, with emphasis on the "passive"; Holden Caulfield had nothing on me.) In high school I got B's in gym -- given that I was aiming for a 4.0, I saw this as all the more reason to give it up once I finished freshman P.E. And in college I took the four phys-ed courses necessary to get the requirement out of the way, no more, never more.

But over time, my attitude changed. I fell in love with walking cities when I studied abroad in England, and got to know New York via long hikes in random directions. I joined the Scholastic Corporate Challenge team as a walker and dared to try a little jogging between strolls. Then I started dating a runner, and his influence and encouragement made me first interested, then active. My father bought me a pair of running shoes (barely restraining his excitement); my boyfriend and I started taking Saturday-morning runs; and we were out walking one winter day when he said, "I bet you couldn't run a 10K."

I said, "Excuse me?"

"I bet you couldn't run a 10K."

"I could so!" I said. "Maybe not right now, but I could totally run a 10K if I wanted to." He laughed, reached over, and started poking the front of my peacoat. "What do you think you're doing?"

He was still laughing. "I'm pushing your buttons."

Needless to say, he was both annoying and wrong, and obviously had to be proven so. So I put "Run a 10K" on my 2004 Resolution List, and that December, after much training and swearing, I ran a 10K. (The boyfriend ran it with me, and kindly admitted he was mistaken afterward.) I didn't do anything longer than my marathon lark last year, but for 2006 I decided I wanted to challenge myself again, and "Run a half-marathon" went on the Resolutions.

So this very small picture is a very big deal: me at the end of my first half-marathon this morning in Central Park. It was by far the longest distance I've ever run, and the crowning event of three months of regular training (also a big deal, as I usually have the self-discipline of a Jack Russell terrier). It rained the entire race, beginning with a cold downpour while we were waiting for the starting horn and occasionally varying to "heavy spit," "steady sprinkling," and "cats and dogs"; but after the initial soaking, this actually wasn't too bad, as it kept me cool and gave me something to think about besides how much farther I had to run.* Likewise I concentrated a lot on my music: "Sunday in the Park with George" for the first loop around the park, my Running playlist for the second, with "Superstition" to kick me up the Harlem Meer hill and "Mr. Brightside" to speed my last mile to the finish. My final time was 2:09:26 (a 9:52 per mile pace), 3002nd out of 4275 participants. As I hoped just to complete the thing, I am quite pleased to have turned in a sub-10-minute-mile performance, and also pretty tired. But yay for being done with the Resolution, and for growing and changing and challenges.

* Another source of contemplation: At about the seven-mile mark, I gave myself a pep talk that went like this: "You're running thirteen miles in the rain. Finish this race, and you will be the most badass of all the badass people in the world. You will be more badass than Samuel L. Jackson. You will be more badass than Shaft." But then I had to shut my mouth -- both for the audacity of the thought, and because I couldn't think of anyone more badass than Shaft. The race ended; I came home, took a shower, and collapsed on my bed, and an "Alias" rerun was on TV. And there was my answer: I was more badass than Jack Bristow. (But don't tell him I said that. )

Saturday Afternoon Roundup

  • Alvina has a wonderful post on her editorial process over on Blue Rose Girls. If you want to know the kind of work a good editor puts in on a novel, check it out.
  • The Children's Book Bloggers' Drinks Night on Thursday was a smashing success, with thirty-something people happily talking work, writing, books, and the business. (I was also delightfully surprised by a visit from my college Quiz Bowl coach, Eric Hillemann, who was in town for archives research.) Look for another Drinks Night (or should we call it "the Happy Bunnies Hour"?) in a month or two.
  • Speaking of Eric, I'm now reading Brainiac by Ken Jennings, the guy who won 74 games in a row on Jeopardy! a few years ago. The book is terrific -- a Word Freak for trivia hounds, well-written, substantive, and funny -- and it has a whole chapter on Eric and the Carleton Quiz Bowl team (winners of the 1999 NAQT undergraduate championship, thank you very much).
  • I bought five books at stoop sales this morning: Longitude by Dava Sobel, which I've heard much praised; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a Resolution Book for this year; V. by Thomas Pynchon, because I was thinking of having Pynchon on my Resolution list for next year; The Big Love by Sarah Dunn, which is hands-down the funniest and truest chick-lit novel I've ever read, and which I already own but I bought again because I lent my copy to someone and I can't remember who and even if I get it back, it's good to have an extra copy to lend out; and Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, which ditto (except replacing "hands-down the funniest and truest chick-lit novel" with "the first book in a series I love madly").
  • Phrase Origin of the Day: The term "hands-down" comes from horse racing, where "A hands-down victory is one that is so assured that a jockey can drop his hands and relax his grip on the reins as he approaches the line." (Courtesy of this.)
  • Open House New York has its annual tour weekend next week. In years past I've climbed to the top of the Grand Army Plaza arch in Brooklyn and the Jefferson Market Library water tower in Greenwich Village; both of those options are available again this year, alongside mansions, museums, and multiple other fascinating architectural sites.
  • Finally, an instruction from the Oklahoma Library Association (courtesy Bullfrog): "Read, Y'All!"

Quotation of the Day

Courtesy of A.Word.A.Day:

"A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity." -- Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat and writer (1884-1962)

Drinks Night Reminder & Editorial Metaphor

A reminder for all you NYC folk: The Children's Book Bloggers Night is this Thursday at Sweet & Vicious, near the intersection of Spring Street and the Bowery (6 to Spring St., B/D/F/V to Broadway-Lafayette, N/R to Prince). The weather should be pleasant and they have a nice garden in back, so come have a drink and hang out with Betsy and me, starting roundabout 6 p.m. Hope to see you there!

I'm now working on my SCBWI talk for next weekend, "The Art of Detection: One Editor's Tips on Analyzing and Revising Your Novel" (that title from memory and therefore possibly mistaken). The topic comes from the excellent advice you, my dear readers, gave me way back in June; the title from Sherlock Holmes's opus on his craft, as the conference has a mystery theme. And I will be talking about some ways you might take a step back from your work -- the same distance an editor has -- think about its strengths and weaknesses, and determine how you might enhance the one and remove or disguise the other.

I hope that's what I'll do, anyway, because I love talking about editing and how stories work, and good LORD I can get easily distracted from my point as I'm doing it. I'm not sure this is going to go in the talk (here's a little sneak preview if it is), but this is my favorite metaphor about editing:

Editing is like rebalancing the tires on your car. The goal is to take the reader on a journey from point A to point B, but to do that in a smooth, straightforward manner, all the wheels on the book need to be in balance. The four wheels are the character wheel, the plot wheel, the writing wheel, and the point wheel: who are these people, what who they are makes happen, how the story is told, and what it all means. The editor looks at how each of these wheels are contributing to the forward motion of the overall vehicle and suggests inflating, deflating, or changing the tires as necessary.
  • Sometimes you have to fill out or change characters to give the action credibility. The boy goes into a murderous rage when he sees the dead cat -- why? Perhaps he needs a backstory where, say, his abusive father kicked the family cat right before he killed the boy's mother, and so the boy is flashing back to that painful moment when he sees the dead cat and that's what drives him to attack the bully who killed the cat. Or something like that. (Note that the character tire cannot be overinflated: Only rarely does a writer need to know less about an important character, although that does not mean that the writer needs to tell the reader everything s/he knows.)
  • Sometimes you have to revise the action because it's illogical according to the logic of the book (particularly the magical logic in a fantasy), because it doesn't jibe with what we know of the character, because your protagonist isn't driving the action, or because nothing is really happening and it's boring.
  • Sometimes you have to change the point of view. Or cut out dead-weight prose that's cluttering the scene or a joke. Or dramatize a scene that's told to us, or tell us a scene that doesn't deserve the weight of being dramatized for us. Or change or cut words or sentence structures that are repeating too closely and therefore jarring to the ear. (Yes, we do go into this much minute detail.)
  • And there needs to be a point--not a moral, but an effect or thought the writer is going toward, which the reader feels or understands after having read the book. Usually the protagonist will be discovering this point as well in the course of the action; and the fact that s/he does so causes things to change for him/her in the novel.

And these are just a few examples of all the things that can need to be thought about or revised in a manuscript. . . . Indeed, there are so many ways books can go wrong that I'm sometimes amazed there are so many that go right in the end, and end in delight for us all -- Millicent Min, Girl Genius; The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, by Jaclyn Moriarty; the Casson and Exiles novels by Hilary McKay; Because of Winn-Dixie; and many others.

And of course -- very important -- it needs to be new, through the voice, the story, the characters, the perspective: something true and of the writer's own. I was running this morning in Prospect Park and "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George came on my iPod:

Look at what you've done,
Then at what you want
Not at where you are, what you'll be . . .

Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be true.
Give us more to see . . .

That is what I want to see in submissions, and what I want to help my authors achieve in their books.

Five Pictures from a Fabulous Vacation

Katy in a punt. Katy and I were celebrating multiple happy occasions this trip: her engagement; my 28th birthday; the completion of her dissertation; and our ten-year anniversary of being best friends. On Saturday, Katy took me out for a picnic in a punt: a baguette, sharp cheddar, tart apples, Cornish pasties, McVitie's, dark chocolate pastilles, water and lemonade (which I insisted on having in honor of Lord Peter and Harriet, though ours was non-synthetic). Katy did all the punting, while I sat and watched the ducks and the undergraduates float by, and we talked and talked and talked. We went up the Cherwell to a pub called the Victoria Arms, where we each had a glass of Pimm's, then came back down for dinner with her fiance Josh and a wonderful bonfire with McVitie's s'mores. (Directions: 1. Toast one marshmallow to the bursting point. 2. Quickly remove the marshmallow from the stick and place it on a chocolate-side-up McVitie. 3. Place another McVitie on top, chocolate side down, and squash to make the chocolate melt. 4. Eat quickly, and don't be ashamed to lick your fingers.)

Me on a stile. On Sunday, Katy and I journeyed by train and bus up to the Peak District in Derbyshire. We held my official birthday dinner at the Rutland Arms Hotel in Bakewell (an inn where Jane Austen herself stayed during a visit to the county in 1811) and slept that night in a B&B. The next day, we set off on a five-mile trek over the Dales, which occasioned considerable good-natured sisterly bickering over the map (Katy held it), our route (I didn't trust her), if it would rain (it didn't), and whether we would reach our destination in time for afternoon tea (of paramount concern to both of us). As it turned out, I was right that our route was not the one marked on the map, but we agreed that the map was stupid and our way was better, as we saw a great deal of beautiful Derbyshire countryside (and sheep) and still reached Chatsworth by 1 p.m. -- plenty of time for tea.

Chatsworth. Why were we so wild to see Chatsworth, you ask? Because Jane Austen likewise visited it on that 1811 trip, right when she was revising Pride and Prejudice, and it is very likely the model for Pemberley:

They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; -- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. . . . Elizabeth was delighted.

And it is lovely. Begun in 1552 by Bess Hardwick and her second husband William Cavendish, it housed Mary Queen of Scots at various times during her imprisonment, and it is still the home of the Cavendish family -- better known as the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The interiors were gorgeous and luxurious without gratuitous ostentation, and the grounds (originally designed by Capability Brown) included a cascade, a rose garden, a delightful hedge maze (which pleased me very much, as I long ago wrote a P&P fanfic set in a hedge maze at Pemberley), and a Squirting Willow (no doubt cousin to the Whomping variety up north). And the stables have been converted into a restaurant, where we had our delicious, much-anticipated tea.

Mr. Darcy, the statue. In fact, Chatsworth is so lovely and so what Jane Austen had in mind that its exterior, entrance hall, and sculpture gallery served as Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation of P&P. While I have considerable differences with that adaptation, I was very fond of Matthew MacFadyen, and they've kept the plaster bust of him as Mr. Darcy in the sculpture gallery where Keira Knightley-as-Elizabeth sees it in the film. It's displayed next to the dress Keira wore in that scene and real first editions of P&P, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey/Persuasion, which I did not steal, despite my extreme case of book lust. Future visitors to Chatsworth may thank me for my forebearance.

Decadence. Finally, of course, after we came back to Oxford on Tuesday, we had to rent the execrable new P&P and watch it all over again -- which was actually a pleasure, as we'd never seen and snarked at it together. So here we have from right to left: the movie; a glass of Cava sparkling wine; Nutella; strawberries; McVitie's; more wine; and Ben & Jerry's Phish Food. Bliss.

More pictures of our trip, with commentary, are now up on my Flickr page here.