Friday, May 28, 2010

Wet and Worried

Spent the last 24 hours worrying about Tori and Max and I'll continue to do so until mid-afternoon.

At Good Hope School the two fifth grade classes have an annual field trip to St. John, the third island in the U.S.V.I. St. John is mostly the national park. So they left Tuesday, flew to St. Thomas and took a ferry to St. John. The program was ambitious, hikes and swimming and snorkeling (St. John reputedly has the best snorkeling around) and ecology lessons. Thank God they have cabins, not tents.

Because yesterday it started raining and for the most part it hasn't stopped. There's a flash flood alert on for the territory - through Saturday evening. And, to help fray my nerves even more, the place they're staying has no cell phone reception, so the earliest I'll hear how they're doing is in a few hours when they ferry back to St. Thomas.

About 25 or so kids, give or take, the two teachers, and a handful of parents.

I'm just glad I convinced her to bring the rain hoodie - the only bit of wet weather gear we brought from Oregon. But I'll feel a LOT better when they're home.

And I do not sleep well anyway when she's not here. I've had three to four hours of sleep a night since they left.

I just hope they had a great time, and the rain becomes part of the legend, one of those things that grows in the telling, that you wear like a badge of honor.

Update: Tori called in at 10:50. All is well. They were about to board the ferry from St. John to St. Thomas, then fly home. She's tired and sore and wet, but they had a lot of fun, she said. It rained all day yesterday on their hike. Can't wait to see her.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Secret Weapon

As I said yesterday, I’ve just completed a young adult novel which my agent will soon be peddling to publishers.

Hasn’t sold it yet. Of course, he couldn’t have. He won’t even be reading it until after the first of June. If he has nothing better to do than sit around his office waiting for me to send him manuscripts, he couldn’t be very good, right? And he is good. So I’m happy he’s busy and hope some of that busy-ness will rub off on me. After all, he doesn’t get paid until I get paid.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about my secret weapon that makes me feel really good about my chances to sell the book.

Tori teaches fifth grade at the Good Hope School, a wonderful private school right on the beach, about two miles from our home. Last fall she had me come to her class to talk about writing, plot and lots of stuff like that. She really pushed writing with the kids all year.

Anyway, one thing led to another and she suggested I read the novel to the kids as it progressed. So I did.

What a revelation! The kids were great. Every Tuesday and Thursday they’d ask Tori at the start of the day if I’d be coming with more chapters. I always tried to have two at a time for them, which kept me focused and productive. I hated to disappoint them.

When I was finished reading for the day and said, “And that’s all for today,” they’d always let out a group moan, “Aawwww!” Which suggested to me that they liked the story, or at least liked it better than they do, say, math tests. I’ll take that.

They were also really helpful, and not at all shy about letting me know when the day’s offering hadn’t measured up. “Kinda boring,” they said once. You’d better believe I worked my ass off to keep from disappointing them.

And as the story progressed, I was able to gauge how it was going and what I needed to do to clean up those problems. I actually was able to reorganize so that the second half of the story already was written as if I’d made the changes already. I’d explain to them what was going to happen in the rewritten version. When I finished (they applauded at the end, and loved the last line) and started on the second draft, I already had thought out what needed to happen. I tossed the first six chapters and condensed them into three, reworking it so that the same exposition was told in action instead of me talking. Thanks to those kids, the book is WAY better than it was.

And I like to think besides entertaining it was also educational for them. They saw the process of writing a novel, saw the truth that all writing is rewriting, and maybe got an idea of the difference between plot and story.

They will, of course, all be named and thanked in the acknowledgements. They also had plenty of ideas of what should happen next and while I don’t think I used any of them, they helped me see how the reader would perceive the story and how I could use those expectations in building the tale.

The only idea I rejected out of hand was the suggestion that I somehow include a vampire love story in my pirate novel. Sorry, Shania. That just wasn’t in the cards. And Mason and Ryan wanted every chapter to include explosions. That was their answer to everything – blow it up!

All in all, it was one of the best things I've ever done as a writer. I don't see how anyone could ever write a novel without a classroom of smart fifth graders to bounce it off of.

It worked so well for both me and the class that Tori has already given me homework. There will of course be a new class of kids in the fifth grade next fall. And they’ll need a story.

I’m mulling ideas. Not pirates this time. It’s going be about the “curse” on my family.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ebullient, then Nervous

Yesterday I sent the final draft of a new novel to my agent. It's a young adult novel with a pirate theme. Because we live in the Caribbean, I made sure it had plenty of Caribbean flavor. And some of it takes place on St. Croix. Because what the hell? We're a Caribbean island. Why shouldn't some of it take place here?

Anyway, I spent all of Tuesday feeling "ebullient." That quickly faded. I now wait in nervous anticipation for him to sell it. I am not na├»ve, I know this will take months - if I’m lucky. But you always think, “He’ll open the file, just to see what he’s got, and be so taken with the opening scene that he’ll sit down and read the whole thing, right then and there. And he’ll see the potential and be so fired up that by the next day he’ll have it in the hands of some high-powered editor at some big publishing house who will immediately offer me a huge, life-changing advance. This will all take about 24 hours, maybe 48.”

It’s not true, of course. But you always let yourself think that. Just for a day or two.

This is not my first attempt. My first novel went to a dozen houses. One of them held it for nine months, it made it all the way through the approval process until the very last meeting, the one where they decide these are the books we’re publishing next season. And for some reason I was never told, they passed on it. Last summer, after two years, my agent informed me that the book was “dead in the water, for now.” Not that it was bad, not that anyone had anything negative to say about it. Just that no one was willing to publish it.

I licked my wounds for two days. As it happened, when we had that conversation I happened to be reviewing a book for The Poopdeck. It was a good book, but nothing special. I said to myself, “You can do better than that. Hell, you DID do better than that. And you can do it again.” So I sat down and wrote the new one.

I took the feedback I’d gotten and started the new story. And yesterday I sent it off.

I had one rule and one secret weapon. The rule was articulated by Tori, who had just read the Percy Jackson series. She’s a fifth grade teacher and has to keep up with what the kids are into. The rule is: Your character has to fight a dragon in every chapter. Doesn’t have to win, but there has to be a dragon in every chapter.

Well, there are no dragons, of course, this is a pirate novel. But there’s plenty of “stuff.”

The secret weapon I will discuss tomorrow. It requires a little more space and time than I have right now.

One thing I have learned through the years is that no book would ever be published if it weren't for "lunch." The two books I co-wrote with Cap'n Slappy were both sold after lunch meetings between my agent and an editor. Everytime there was a glimmer of hope for the first novel it was after a lunch he'd had with someone. If agents and editors ever decided en masse to go on diets and cut out that middle of the day meal, the country's literary output would fall to nothing.

Just checked my e-mail again. Still nothing from my agent. That’s the other thing, when you don’t hear anything back right away, your mind starts telling you “That’s it. He hates it. In fact, he hates me personally, wonders why he ever signed me, and will probably quit the book business just to get away from me.” If – God forbid! – he were to die, I would blame myself, assuming reading my manuscript had sapped his will to live.

As I think I mentioned in the post about “Bird by Bird,” writers are crazy. I certainly am.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

That was a mistake

I just accidentally re-posted something I'd posted two months ago. Sorry. Pulled it

I found it on my desktop and didn't realize I'd posted back then. Thought, "Well, went to all the trouble to write it."

My bad. And my apologies.

I will, however, be posting something else on writing, but not this week. Next Monday, I'm pretty sure. Because that's when I'll be done.

(And Alex finished her creative writing class, which she really enjoyed. The teacher was terrific, really inspired her.)

In the meantime, here's an update. Lots of mosquitoes right now. Seems to me we had a lot this time last year too, so that'd make it seasonal which means eventually this onslaught will end. I hope so. Killed eight within 15 minutes of waking up this morning. If I lose much more blood I'm likely to pass out.

Maybe that's why I made the mistake. I must be light-headed from loss of blood.

jb