Monthly Archives: April 2012

Another Round (no, not that kind)

It’s true: I’m revising my (no longer so) new novel yet again.  When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, my editor and I met for a long talk where I wound up convinced of the wisdom of (most of) her ways.  Donna prompted me to one big, all-important change in FOX STREET, and a pretty massive overhaul of MO WREN.  Once again, after I finished groaning, fuming, sighing, kicking, and did I mention groaning, I have wound up trusting her.  Back to work.

One of the things I’m fixing is something I know very well—something I’ve said aloud in workshops untold times.  The child is the hero of your story.  He’s got to be the one who makes things change.  In my novel, Larry was always at the heart of things, yet too many of his discoveries were more or less being handed to him—he wasn’t the actor so much as the receiver.  Where’s the fun and excitement in that?

I also didn’t have enough at stake—another thing I’ve said in many critiques (is there by any chance an adage about seeing other people’s faults far more easily than your own?)  Working on that has been the best part of this round of revisions, even if I’ve had kill off a really sweet, apple-cheeked old lady– RIP, dear Granny! 

Even after all the work I’d done on the book, some of the minor characters still had STOCK stamped on their foreheads.  Really, you can’t ever know how many cliches your brain harbors until you sit down to write.  Giving everybody a new wrinkle has been satisfying.  What I think is that for me, plot—what happens next—is so monstrously difficult, I fall back on the easy way out with other things.  And that’s okay. as long as I go back and fix them.

Just for fun, here are three openings I’ve used so far.  I won’t tell you which one I think is going to stick:

1)  Larry’s parents were creatures of habit.  Every morning his Mom staggered into the kitchen with her arms straight out, rigid as the walking dead.  Slowly, she rejoined the living, rubbing her eyes, blinking, and looking surprised all over again to find herself in a little house, on a tiny island, in a great lake.     

Dad?  He inspected his gun.

2)  Some fathers sit at the breakfast table and read the newspaper. Others check their calendars, or help their kids practice spelling words, or if they’re really talented, all three at once.

My father?  Larry Walnut Sr.?  He inspects his gun. 

3)  I was five or six when I first understood:  I live on a dot of land 100% surrounded by water.  It freaked my primitive, little kid brain.  What if the island sank?  What if it drifted away like a boat that slips its mooring and is never seen again?  Dad took me on his lap to explain that Pinch Island has a stony anchor that goes all the way to the bottom of the lake.  Don’t you worry, he told me in his deep, Dadly voice. This little island’s going nowhere. 

Were truer words ever spoken?


Favorite writing quote of the week.  Anne Lamott on being afraid to use family and acquaintances in your fiction: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”   

Rock Out

This week was the 2012 induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here, and even though I was sad Laura Nyro couldn’t come, at least she had a better excuse (being dead) than Axl Rose (he’d get into a fight with his old band mates if he had to share a stage with them),  and I was glad to see Cleveland getting a little love in the media.   A city can be great in ways both large and small, expected and quirky, and lest you think I protest too much over how great a place this:

–This week I reviewed this wonderful book,

whose author now lives in Cleveland.  Luong shares her riveting life story and hard-won wisdom through writing as well as speaking and activism all over the world.

–Last Saturday I took part in a local panel on publishing for kids.  While the audience was picking our brains, we slyly picked one another’s as well.  One of my favorite moments was when Shelley Pearsall, author of the Scott O’Dell winning “Trouble Don’t Last”, described how she finds  her characters.  “They just sort of show up,” she said, “like they’re all on this big bus and they’re waving to me out the window.”  Rebeccca Barnhouse, whose historical novel “Peaceweaver” just pubbed,  demanded to know where that bus stop was.

–As you may know, FOX STREET and MO WREN are both set in Cleveland, and this week brought both good news and bad.  Good: FOX STREET is nominated for two state awards!  Bad: Here in Ohio, one of the books it’s up against is a biography of Justin Bieber.  I’m not  sure how my own niece would vote, if she was sure it was a secret ballot.

–Midst all the controversy over hoodies,  my friend Susan Petrone,, who is, yes, a terrific Cleveland writer, had the happiest story.  Leaving  for school, her kindergartner put hers on backwards.  When Susan asked what was up, her daughter answered, “In case I want to be alone.”

–Like every other woman I know, I do some yoga.  The Atma Center is a  few blocks from my house, and the other day when we were practicing breathing, I thought about how writing has its own inhale and exhale,  how different kinds of writing require different breaths.  When I write a sentence like, “His uniform was crisp and his blonde hair slicked back,” that’s what they call “the natural breath”.  But,  “Some things we can’t understand right away, Mom says.  Some things we have to carry around, like pebbles in our pockets, fingering them, now and then taking them out to hold up to the light.”–that’s getting closer to a full yogic breath.

–Next up for Cleveland: a casino.  I know, I know.  But I’m reserving judgement.  Meanwhile, the uncut grass outside my window leaps for joy.

Y O Y??

Why We Write is a monthly feature in “Poets & Writers” and the first thing I turn to when a new issue arrives (it has no cartoons, which is what I read first in the “New Yorker”).  I’m always hoping for a concise, definitive answer to this perplexing question, something like, “Because we’re diagnosed lunatics” or “We can’t help it, okay?” or  “It’s marginally better than watching the shopping network.” 

Instead poets and writers offer long, graceful essays with titles like A Necessary Magic and The Landscape of What Remains,  essays I enjoy but inevitably lay down still wondering, Yeah, but why?  Why spend massive chunks of our this-is-not-a-dress-rehearsal lives all alone, making up people and events, dialogue and interior monologues,  all this without the slightest assurance that anyone else will be at all interested?  Could we please not even mention the monetary aspects?

Libba Bray is a terrific, hugely successful young adult writer whose blog is frequently about wanting to give herself a lobotomy rather than write. (I met her once, at the SCBWI conference in NYC, right after she won the Prinz Award for Going Bovine. I mean, she sat right down next to me.  I congratulated her and said I had a book out on submission and could I touch her arm for luck.  When the book was subsequently accepted, I wrote to tell her and she swore she hadn’t washed the arm since.)  Recently she interviewed the likewise hugely successful writer Robin Wasserman, whose latest book is The Book of Blood and Shadow, about the writing process (among many other things—read the interview, it’s hilarious).

Wasserman says things like:

I am the WORST when it comes to coming up with ideas.  Other writers are always whining about how they have soooo many ideas, they don’t know how they’ll have time to write them all.  When they whine like that around me, I punch them in the nose. (Okay, I don’t actually do that, because I don’t believe in violence, blah blah blah, but I’ve certainly imagined it in gruesome detail.) For me, coming up with the right idea for a book is agony. It’s also agony for everyone around me. (cf the nose punching.)   

On her most and least favorite parts of writing:

Least favorite: Almost all of it, after the first few chapters. I think of the middle of a book a bit like a death march. Around page 75 I become convinced that everything I’m writing is crap, and this lasts until I’m almost at the very, very end.  I love preparing to write, and I love having written, and every once in a while I hit on a few pages that make me dance, but for the most part, I make it through the middle by promising myself I’ll get to the end.

Favorite: The end. Writing the last page of the book and then jumping on my couch and shouting, “I’m done!” (I actually do that.  Every time. It’s embarrassing.)

Soooooo…why write?  The best answer I can come up with is what happened the time I really, truly swore off writing.  I was coming off a heart-breaking, soul-wrecking rejection, and decided never to put myself through that again.  But after a few weeks, I started jotting a line here, a line there.  They came to me, and to get rid of them I had to write them down.  And you know how it is in life—one thing leads to another.  What I realized then is that not writing took my world down a big notch.  More than that—“real” life just wasn’t enough for me.  I wanted other lives besides mine, lots of them.  I’m greedy—that’s the best answer I’ve been able to come up with so far. 

From Adrienne Rich, who recently died:

“I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps. 

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.”

The L Word

Say  contest and I get the heebie jeebies.  Or maybe it’s the word loser that does it.  Because as sure as every party has a morning after, every contest has a loser. Or two.  Or a thousand.

I remember being six or seven and going to a fair at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church.  They had a roulette wheel, probably the most dazzling and intriguing thing I’d ever seen, and I plunked my quarter down on my lucky number.  (A six year old gambler? Remember, those were the days when parents told you to go outside and play in the traffic).  The wheel spun, I held my breath—but no cigar.  Losing was bad enough, but the true sorrow and shock were yet to come.  As I reached to reclaim my quarter, the guy in charge swept it away.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d assumed only the person who won had to pay!  The indignity!  The cruel and bitter unfairness of the world. 

That was a contest of chance, of course.  Nothing compared to when you pit your talent, vision, more or less freaking soul, against others—i.e., enter a writing competition.   Which was why, when I was recently asked to judge two student writing contests, I broke out in a sweat.  Both contests are sponsored by libraries, and who can so no to a children’s librarian?  Not me, it turns out.

Judging  was as torturous as I feared, for more reasons than expected.  The entries were spectacular!  One contest was stories, everything from mad adventure to chiling dystopia to the second coming of Holden Caulfield.  I loved them all, reeling from laughter to heartbreak to my own memories of how intensely everything mattered when I was that age. 

The other contest was letters students wrote to writers who’d changed their lives.  They wrote to everyone from Emily Dickinson to Chuck Palahniuk, and let me tell you, the future of books and reading is assured.  I don’t remember the last time I was so humbled and grateful to find myself a writer for kids.  Books, they wrote, had helped them reach out to friends in trouble, discover their own powers, determine to become writers themselves.  Books comforted them when they felt most alone, and taught them things like “truth can be scary” and  “sometimes life doesn’t go the way you want it to” and “even though in real life you can’t shoot a jet of  blue lìght from your fìnger toward someone that’s bugging you, you can learn from characters in books to be thoughtful in your actions”.  Even if you’re a reluctant reader, once you find the right book you may well find yourself on “a reading rampage”.  Some of my favorite lines were from a boy who forgot to give his last name.  He was addressing Gary Paulsen, that great chronicler of wild-toothed nature.  Your book, he wrote, “just made me realize that there’s more to life than normally 80 or 90 years of work.  It’s the way things live, that’s what life is.”  He added, “I might have cried once.”  


“Losing” isn’t so hard on me any more—it comes with the territory of creating.  But I’ll share some good news, both because it’s so nice and because I want to publicize the enormously valuable work this organization does.  My fiction has received a 2012 grant from the Ohio Arts Council,, a state agency that  “funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally and economically. With funds from the Ohio Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, the OAC provides financial assistance to artists and arts organizations.”

They give dollars to individuals like me, as well as institutions large and small.  Where would we  be without this official faith in beauty and meaning?  Thank you, OAC, and thank you, legislators, who continue to fund the arts through thick and very thin.