Right foot, left foot, right foot…keep moving.

As I wade through a sea of dirty floors, bills to be paid, dinner dishes, and a week of long days between now and Spring Break, it’s so easy to lose the plot with writing. After all, inspiration (and energy) sometimes vanish when high schoolers bury me under their personal dramas and intense home situations all day long, my baby cries to me at night because she hates math and is “too hungry to pay attention” by the time lunch rolls around at 1:15, and the cat needs to go to the vet again because he has tumors that require more steroid shots. Sometimes life just gets in the way. And it’s precisely at these moments that writing should be an escape and not a chore, but somehow when I’m mentally and physically depleted, it’s easier (and more fun) to let someone else’s words entertain me. And so I read.

I’ve been a little obsessed lately with the books that amused me in my youth. Remember that feeling of coming home from school with no responsibilities or big decisions to make? That freedom of having no homework to do, when your most pressing concern was how many grilled cheese sandwiches to make before disappearing into your room with a book? I loved the creepy and well-written soft-horror of Lois Duncan, and am currently reading Killing Mr. Griffin simply because it called out to me from my bookshelf at school. And I won’t lie: I’ve considered revisiting Sweet Valley High just for fun, and I even googled a series I remember loving called Sweet Dreams–it was a collection of standalone romances with torrid titles like P.S. I Love You, Summer Breezes, and Programmed for Love. (I think it was the different characters and places in each of these books that made me love a good series with standalone titles, which is part of what I’m loving so much as Holly and I work on our books together.) Sadly, my copies of these favorites were all lost in the Great Waterbed Tragedy of 1989, but I’m sure I could replace that waterlogged, pulpy mess of teenage drama and romance if I really wanted to. I mean, with just a few strategic bids and some last-minute maneuvers, I clobbered my eBay opponent in a war to win the entire catalogue of Babysitters Club novels last spring. And after parting with $75 (and a little of my dignity as one of my TA’s watched in puzzlement as I whooped with joy over winning a box of thirty-year-old girls’ books) I became the proud owner of a classic series. Er, I mean Holly became the proud owner of all of the Babysitters Club books. (Duh. Of course they were for her–I mean, obviously!)

But honestly, I have no shame about what I read. Good books don’t have to be secret guilty pleasures like the embarrassing music you hide on your iPod (hello, entire Aha and Debbie Gibson catalogues–I’m talking about you!) So now, with pride, I’m going to go polish off Killing Mr. Griffin on this rainy Saturday afternoon. And then we’ll write.

Always be a good hostess!

So, draft one is done, and our amazing first reader gave us back her comments and edits (big shout out to Jaime! Woot woot!) We’ve made all of the grammatical and suggested changes, and now we’re ready for action. Like, REALLY ready. It’s at about this point with a manuscript that I throw caution to the wind and start querying like a madwoman. And, you know…that’s yielded some results–just not the ones I’ve wanted. In the past I’ve had requests to read 50 page partials, 100 pages, and once I even had a full manuscript request. But the best outcome I’ve had so far was an agent who gave me detailed feedback with a final comment to send her anything else that I might write in the future. I was incredibly excited and flattered by her interest, but the downside of that offer was that–based on what I could glean from her website–she wasn’t a very experienced agent, so…I took her advice to keep writing, but I’m going to keep searching for my dream agent.

I’ve determined that we’re going to be far more patient and methodical with this project, as Holly and I have put tons of effort into this, and we’ve poured all of our authorial hopes and dreams into each other’s ears as we’ve worked. In researching the most amazing, kick-ass representatives for MG and YA authors, I found an agent’s website that included advice, links, and even a writing checklist. Her thoughts on how to present your work to an agent are really interesting, and the checklist walks authors through the whole writing process. I think the biggest takeaway I had from her article was the advice to bring your readers in to a party on page one–but bring them in to a party to which they’re arriving fashionably late. As soon as you get them in the door, show them the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the story. Point them in the right directions–guide their attention towards your pool, your remodeled living room, your most interesting piece of artwork. Essentially, be a good hostess! Never, never, never in all my years of writing had I thought of it that way: I’m inviting people into my home, my world, my story…now it’s my job (our job!) to take their coats, offer them a drink, show them where the restroom is, and introduce them to our fascinating and eccentric friends. Being good hostesses is easy–we can do this!

E-spiration.

At the very heart of our writing is inspiration. What we’re inspired by is very personal and unique to each of us, and how we carry that through an entire project probably varies so widely that I couldn’t even begin to imagine all of the different techniques that writers use!

As for me, I like a good visual. As I mentioned in a previous post, Holly disappears into her room for hours making slideshows set to music that visually represent our ideas and characters, but I lean more towards a good old-fashioned mood/inspiration board. In fact, for my own side project (I have something I’ve been working on in my free time–wait, did I say “free time”? *Insert chuckles here…*) I have three giant pieces of poster board plastered with images that get me into a mental place where I can become my protagonist and where I live in her world. For that manuscript, the location happens to be a fictional Florida Key populated by retirees and filled with mystery and romance, so to create my inspiration boards I happily spent an afternoon with a stack of Island Life and Florida Travel and Life magazines, scissors, glue sticks, and my favorite album by The Cure.

But that’s where we encounter a bit of a generation gap, my lovely daughter and I. I’ve got a Millenial on my hands who is already heavily immersed in the land of Apple products, and to her, old school collage-making reeks of a pre-school art project. So we explored as many online inspiration board and mood board options as we could for our project, hoping to find something that worked for both of us. Some sites/apps were incredibly promising but didn’t deliver, and others were just complex and clearly made for work-based idea collaboration. The easiest and most user-friendly tool we found was a site called http://www.photovisi.com that lets you choose a layout for your collage, then add pictures and reposition/re-size them to get the look you desire.

The mood board we have here is representative of our first book, which is about a girl from Holland who ends up living outside of San Francisco. We chose scenes from autumn, Chinatown, Disneyland, and a very special cat, and they all feel just right to us when we think about the important scenes from that manuscript. As I write this, Holly is next to me with her laptop, working on a mood board for book #2.

With google and online collage-makers we have a world of inspirational photos at our fingertips, and the means to put together some pretty cool mood boards.  But give me a pile of magazines, some Elmer’s glue, and the 80s Alternative station on Pandora, and I can happily pass an afternoon lost in my own world of inspiration.

How We Write.

Writing in a partnership is a roller coaster. I find that sometimes it makes the whole process more exciting, like when you have an idea that you share with the other person, and you both end up shouting, “YES! That’s perfect!” and falling all over each other with praise. Other times it can be challenging: you’re in the flow of writing, and the other person has something to add that brings the whole thing to a screeching halt. Or you don’t agree on something fundamental, which means you have to talk it through–something you don’t have to do while working alone. But the feeling of doing something together is incomparable.

The way we write is especially sweet for me: Holly is our idea guru, and I bring the ideas to life. For instance, when we start something, we come up with a theme for the book, then we talk about characters, scenes, locations, etc. (Can you imagine how proud a mother who majored in English is when she listens to her 11-year old debate the merits of realistic versus science fiction? When she starts kicking around terms like ‘universal themes’?) From there, she goes bananas–she researches, finds pictures and maps, and then she creates a slideshow for us that serves as inspiration as we go forward. She did one just this morning for our new project that was set to music and included a picture of what she thinks every character in our book should look like.

Next, we sit down together, side-by-side. (This is my favorite part.) Sometimes we work on the couch, other times we lean against a big pile of pillows on her bedroom floor. And if the weather is nice, we head out to the backyard to work in our little casita, surrounded by pink walls, inspiration boards, my collection of rabbits and cardinals (stuffed, wooden, and porcelain), the sunlight streaming through the miniature windows with their cheery pink and white checked curtains. Then she leans her shoulder against mine or puts her head on my arm as I write so that she can read every word as I’m typing. That means she can stop me when I use a word that’s ridiculously out of character for our heroine, or when I need input on something “cool” or “young” to keep our heroine living in the 21st century. But in the end, I know that no matter what–whether we’re successful at this endeavor, or whether it’s just a fun hobby–I’ll never forget the times we spent together, lost in the process, her soft, fragrant head on my shoulder, easily within kissing distance.

Because that’s just how we write.

When Spring Comes Early…

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THIS. WEATHER. Who says global warming isn’t real? Our friendly after-school janitor debated this with me the other day (as here in the Pacific Northwest we haven’t seen a lick of the white stuff fall from the sky since November. NOVEMBER!)  He falls heavily on the side of “shifting weather patterns” as opposed to “global warming.” I–on the other hand–think that the world has to be tilting perilously on its axis or something in order for us to get a string of sixty degree, sunny days in February. But why quibble? All I know for sure is that, meteorologically speaking, things just ain’t right. A friend in D.C. says her son’s school district has added minutes on to every school day into the month of April to make up for all of their snow days, and my daughter is busting out her gladiator sandals before Valentine’s Day and referring to March 5th as “another hot, sunny day, right Mom?” So things are definitely topsy-turvy up in this joint.

Anyhow, with a sky the color of a Mexican Jay’s feathers, and trees already covered in puffs of pink cotton candy cherry blossoms, I know it’s time to break out my camera and hit the open road. Of course my favorite subject is also my writing partner, and I feel like I can say this without sounding like a braggadocio mom: girlfriend knows her way around a pose. I think it might be genetic. I started modeling at twelve, and while I generally prefer being on the other side of the camera now, I do love to watch my baby girl angling and configuring herself into just the right position to catch the light and convey a mood. Not that I’m desperate for her to follow in my footsteps (believe me–I’d rather she do a sport! Take AP classes instead of leaving school midday for fashion shows! Go to college while the ink is still wet on her high school diploma!), but it does make a mother proud. It does. I can’t even lie.

Our manuscript is out there!

We finished the first run-through of our manuscript and sent it to three people this weekend, so now we just (im)patiently wait for feedback. I know the best thing to do during this rush of “we just finished a NOVEL!” adrenaline is move on to our next manuscript and keep the creativity flowing, so that’s what we’ll do.

The original idea for this series that we’re working on stemmed from Holly’s love of the American Girl books, and a unit at school last year that introduced her to pioneer girls and their diaries. After talking through what she wanted to write, we came up with an idea for the this series. Each book will be a standalone novel about a young girl who comes to America and lives her own version of the American Dream. Because each protagonist will come from a different country, it gives us the opportunity to research and learn about other parts of the world and other languages, and it also allows us to give some thought to what it’s like to be an outsider, a newcomer, a person who is striving for something and overcoming obstacles. Using fiction to understand life isn’t a new technique by any stretch, and while I know it will benefit Holly as she goes into middle school next year and broadens her own horizons, I figure it can’t hurt me to be reminded that everyone’s struggles are real.

Book 1 is about a girl named Iris from Holland (we’ll get back to her as soon as our first reader reviews come in from my parents and some trusted friends), but in the mean time, we’re starting to think about Book 2. Who will our main character be? Where will she come from and to which state will she go? Letting your characters come to life as you research them is an exciting stage of writing, and one we both enjoyed immensely the first time around. So here we go with a whole new set of characters and themes and places: let the games begin!