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PENNE2014Poster(Poster: Lisa Jahn-Clough)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing the three winners of the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Awards read from their winning manuscripts, and I am here to tell you: They knocked it out of the park as well as Big Papi does down the road at Fenway.


Mackenzie van Engelenhoven, Rebecca Roan, and Pamela Sonn are writers to watch out for. Their picture books (Rebecca and Pamela) and YA novel (Mackenzie) will doubtless be out in the world soon, and deserve to be. These are three seriously talented women.

Listening to them read, reminded me of being where they were a year ago. That's an extra shot of inspiration to finish the tweak-ish revisions I still need to do, so that my own winning manuscript can start taking Next Steps.

Dear Language Arts Teachers

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Dear Language Arts Teachers,

This morning an experience brought into focus something I deal with on regular basis. You see, I am one of you, an instructor in a professional writing program at a small professional college. Our students are not interested in a liberal arts education. They come to us because they want to work as writers, whether for game design companies, news media, or as publishing professionals.

This morning I heard someone read a heart-warming story of appreciation written by a fourth grader. The short personal essay was imaginatively organized and expressed deep gratitude. However, it also contained several very simple, yet cringe-making errors: “her and me sat together” and a basic subject-verb disagreement that I no longer remember because all I could think was, ‘doesn’t she know that’s wrong?’”

I happened to be sitting beside my local superintendent, and couldn’t help mentioning the errors to him. He explained, “It’s okay. They’re allowed a certain amount of free expression.”

That was when the penny really dropped.

While I wholeheartedly agree that students need to be allowed to give voice to whatever their thoughts are, not expecting them to master certain fundamental rules of our common language—to learn when they should code switch from what they would say to what they should write—is unreasonable.

I know what you’re thinking—this child was only in the fourth grade. However, I teach at the college level and I see these very same mistakes from my college seniors.  Including senior professional writing majors.* It’s not that I see such errors in works of fiction, where they might be appropriate to character. It’s that I see them in everything from personal essays to sample cover letters for job applications.

That twenty-one-year-old students  make the same mistakes as nine-year-old students is significant. In some cases, I suspect they have never been taught. In some cases, I suspect they were taught—once, probably in elementary school—but that the teaching was never reinforced. And in some cases, I suspect they were taught, but that they were allowed that “certain amount of free expression” and took it to mean that what they learned in Language Arts class did not apply when they were writing for themselves.** This does them a disservice when it could make a difference between receiving a request for a job interview because their cover letter and resume were flawless and never receiving that request because of basic mistakes in grammar and spelling.

Should grammar and spelling be the first things that matter? No. Persuasive content is most certainly more important. But that is not the same as saying grammar and spelling don’t matter at all. As author Kate Messner points out in Real Revisions: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers, (Stenhouse, 2011), it’s the last step, but it’s a crucial last step.

My fellow teachers, please encourage your students to make that crucial last step. Those of us who teach them after you will be grateful. So will they.



*Deliberate use of a sentence fragment for effect.

**Deliberate use of a conjunction at the start of a sentence. In this case, these sentences form a quasi-list.

At the Turn of the Year

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When I was a teenager, I used to say, with more than a hint of sarcasm, that thirteen was my lucky number.

I have to say, 2013 felt like a luckier year than most.

In the winter and spring, the manuscript of the novel I had been working on for the last six months won not one, but two awards. Nothing could be more validating! I continue to be grateful to the Norma Fox Mazer Award and Pen New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award committees.

I finished my second and final year of graduate work, writing a critical thesis in the first half of the year and a creative thesis in the second half. Coe Booth proved the perfect guide through both the critical thesis and revisions on most of the novel I drafted the previous semester. Martine Leavitt was equally perfect when I decided to challenge myself and start a new project for my creative thesis. As a result, I now have another fully-drafted novel to revise after graduation.

I was also privileged to be asked to serve as Co-Regional Advisor for the New England chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It was great fun attending the annual August conference in August in LA and meeting everyone else who makes our professional organization work, along with catching up with some of my fellow VCFA people, who hold similar positions in their regions.

Despite the many hours I devoted to writing every week, I did manage to get some gardening done, and to make some jams and jellies. There's more of that in my future, along with more visits to New York City, where my daughter is now living. When I was down in October we had a great time, taking in Comic-Con and going to a Broadway show, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the exhibit on Children's Literature that's currently at the New York Public Library.

I'm looking forward to finding more balance in 2014, taking time to catch up with family and friends who have been long-neglected as I focused on the MFA. But I'm also looking forward to maintaining a regular writing schedule, and finishing projects and getting them out on submission. I'm also looking forward to the three classes I'm teaching this spring--writing about food joins the spring schedule of copyediting and senior portfolio.

Whatever happens, I feel as if, in the past year, I have come into my own. I am a writer--words are my life.

It's a wonderful feeling.

I hope you feel the same as we step into the new year.

Of Trees and Ice

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IceStorm2013 013

A week ago, two days before Christmas, an ice storm hit the area where I live hard. We were without power most of Sunday and again most of Monday. Others lost their power for mere hours, others for days.

However, I want to focus not on what happened to people, but to the trees in our front yard. We have four sugar maples, planted near the road, a birch, a crab apple, a poplar, a pine, and a silver maple. The sugar maples and birch came from my parents' woodlot, about an hour east of us. The crab apple was purchased at a local nursery that specializes in fruit stock that does well in our growing zone. The pine was a gift from a neighbor. The poplar we bought from a catalog when we first moved into our house, because it was guaranteed to grow quickly and we wanted shade fast. The silver maple was a gift from family in Connecticut, courtesy of the Arbor Society. It's native range is somewhat to the south of us.

They fared diversely. The sugar maples and the pine are absolutely fine. The crab apple lost the top of the center trunk, which was dead anyway. The birch, like birches all over, and like the birches in Robert Frost's poem, are bent. The poplar and the silver maple, however, did not bend. They broke. The poplar has very few full branches left. One of the silver maple's multiple trunks bent over the spot where my car is usually parked (my husband wisely decided to move it) and hovered there for a day before it cracked, split, and fell.

Throughout the past week, whenever I looked at our trees, one word came to mind: resiliency.

Our trees responded differently to a coating of ice, even though they were in the same yard and most of them were the same age. Their response depended on their kind.

There's a metaphor in that, one I don't want to belabor, but one I think we could do well to heed.

Children's Book Week

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In honor of Children's Book Week, the New York Public Library posted its list of 100 Great Children's Books. So did the U.K.'s Book Trust. The two lists have a few titles in common.

  1. The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

  2. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.

  3. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.

  4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

  5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

  6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  7. Matilda by Roald Dahl.

  8. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.

  9. The True Story of the Three Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

  11. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

  12. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.

  13. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.

  14. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

  15. The Borrowers by Mary Norton.

The thing that strikes me is that while the common titles are fairly well distributed across age groups through about age 12 or 14, the one thing most of them have in common is some degree of belonging to the fantastic, from outright fantasy to something more like magic realism.

The other thought that occurs is that 15 books is not too many--if every child read these 15 books, it would make for an enjoyable shared common ground, which as far as I'm concerned is one of the nicest things that reading does.

I'm pleased to say that I have read every one of these fifteen books, and most of the others in the two different "100 best --" lists. The biggest gap in my book knowledge is Enid Blyton, and it's one I intend to fill post-haste. How about you? How many have you read and which ones do you want to read?


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It has been a good month and a half since I posted. Blame it on a week at the national SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles, which was wonderful, and on the Dread MFA Packet Deadline. --I say "dread" with all due affection, rather like Wesley refers to the "Dread Pirate Roberts" in The Princess Bride.

An update is long overdue.

The current Sekrit Project is proceeding nicely. I probably shouldn't call it secret, because after all, I am sharing it with my advisor, the wonderful and talented Martine Leavitt. (I feel almost infinitely lucky to have her as my final advisor.)

However, to say that the Sekrit Project is proceeding nicely is both under- and over-statement. It is proceeding, and when I think about what I knew about this project in mid-July and what was on my calendar between mid-July and the time my first packet was due, just past the middle of August, I have certainly made progress. I know more about this world, these characters, the overall story and its structure and theme. However, the pages themselves are coming slowly, slowly, slooooowwwwwllllyyy.

How slow is slow? This afternoon it took me more than three hours to write under 818 words. The other day it took several hours to write 300. The pace has been similar, generally speaking, for the last two-plus weeks.

I've known for a while that every novel project is different. So far I've written one that I still think of as "the novel I didn't want to write" and it took me years to get the basic shape down--there was one part I could not figure out for the life of me. Three summers ago I wrote one that flowed like snowmelt, so fast I had the first draft done in less than three months. Last year I wrote one completely out of order--first scene, last scene, a scene that fell three-quarters of the way through--back and fill all the way. Who knows what the next project will be like. That doesn't matter, though, because right now, I'm working on this one.

This afternoon I realized something: This is my slow book. At least for now. Maybe it will turn into my Leo the Late Bloomer. We'll see. I'm not going to pressure it. Instead, I'm going to relax and accept that this is its pace. I know where it's going. I've got a plot skeleton that gives me just enough guidance. I love my main character and I love her enough to break her heart. And the pace of the story itself is not slow.

Slow food, slow money, and now--slow novel.

A better analogy would be to raising children. Each one is different. Each grows at his or her own pace. They grow best if we accept them for who they are and nurture them in a way that suits them.

How have your writing projects varied?

Opening the Creative Mind

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I'm starting a new project for my final semester. I'm not ready to talk about it yet, because it's still at the stage where it feels like entering a strange new house at midnight--not the teen stalker/slasher flick sort of house, but one I've been invited to by a friend. Still, it's a new house and it's dark and I've got to find my way around without turning on any lights.

I do have a sort of floor plan, in the form of the twenty pages I wrote for workshop and the letter my character wrote to my advisor. That's it.

This week I've been sliding my feet along the metaphorical floors and waving my hands in front of me and to the side, trying to locate landmarks. It's been challenging, to say the least. I've done some work on a character outline, which has helped. (Thank you, Tom Birdseye.) I'll do more on that today, even though it is my birthday, because at this point it's important for me to keep in contact with the character(s) and the story.

I took my characters with me to yoga and let the story rest at the top of my mind, which always helps. As happens when I'm walking, when I'm in a pose and thinking about my breath, the not-paying-direct-attention often allows thoughts to rise to consciousness.

But the thing that has helped me most is something I've experienced before, back in 2010 when the "surreal bollocks" that is the comedy of Eddie Izzard first blew me away (and left me asking, what took me so long?). That experience led to a novel (one that will soon be shopped around). Seeing him in person in Montreal in 2011 led to some sort of strange picture book thingy that I love.

This week I had the supreme pleasure of being able to catch his "United Nations of Comedy" gala at the Just for Laughs/Juste pour Rire Festival in Montreal and his first ever show in Burlington, Vermont. Back to back. Thursday and Friday nights.

Flynn Marquee

Last night, sitting in my very nice seat, filling my lungs with laughter until my already sore cheeks ached even more, I felt my mind open. Literally. I was aware of space in my mind that had not been there.

No, I was not immediately inspired--no fresh brilliant ideas sent the words pouring from my fingers the instant I got home. Still, in the middle of the night I woke with a realization that will make a difference for my current project. The specifics aren't what's important, though.

What matters is why the comedic force majeure that is Eddie Izzard is so important to my creative mind.

It can be summed up in one word.

Openness--or, if you like gerunds--Opening.

Comedy creates openings, both literal and figurative. When you laugh, your mouth is open and you are vulnerable to the world in a way that isn't often possible. But before you laugh, your mind has to be open. Comedy comes from seeing things in a new way, often from juxtaposing things in unexpected ways--the comic can present them, but if the audience isn't there, if their minds aren't open to catch the new juxtaposition, there won't be laughter.

Any comic can do that for any audience.

What makes Eddie Izzard different is his own openness, his willingness to be vulnerable up there on stage. He does this in several ways:

Last night he talked about being an action transvestite and what that meant, about his experience being arrested for shoplifting makeup (a beautifully built-up story with a lovely punch-line). Even as I was laughing, I admired his honesty now, for revealing what it cost him to keep his secret as a teen. I also admired, all over again, the courage it took for the young man who was just starting to find success to reveal the truth and make himself so vulnerable. (--Talk about rocks and hard places: to come out and risk physical abuse and the possibility of losing the professional position you were only starting to gain or to keep a secret and risk it being discovered and the scorn that could be heaped on you.)

As admirable as that sort of openness is, Eddie Izzard offers a far more valuable kind of openness--the vulnerability of improv. He goes off on the most entertaining of tangents and then, when he reaches the end, he asks, "Now where was I going with that?" But those tangents allow him to come up with new material every night, to explore possibilities as they arise. They're a comedic form of not stepping in the same river twice. (They also mean that a 90 minute show can become a 2-hour show, about which I have absolutely no complaints.) Set topics work as stepping stones, providing a path, but around them, everything flows in the moment.

Openness, vulnerability. They're what I need right now as a writer fumbling in the dark. Not that I want to stub my toe, but if I do, so be it.

I will remember how much courage it takes to be a certain sort of teenager, even one who is sure of who s/he is.

I will remember that tangents can be fruitful and until I have all my stepping stones in place, I'm going to give myself full freedom to pursue them. Writing is an act of improv (at least for me), but, as I have said before, it is one we have the luxury of performing in  private.

I will remember to be open and let the possibilities pour in until they overflow into words.

In the Cards

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I've mentioned my love of office supplies in the past--markers, highlighters, pens of most types (never was a fan of the rollerball) and with most ink colors (yellow, not so much).

I still love all those items, along with paper clips, binder clips, clear and manila file folders.... I could go on.

But my current favorite is the humble index card, 3x5, blank or lined. Right now blank has a slight edge.

The index card has become my go-to when I'm in a story jam. Or for that matter, any sort of writing jam.

Of course, I had used them in the past. I had three boxes full of them when I wrote my master's thesis for my degree in German Language and Literature. They kept my bibliography organized. They held key quotes. They had their place. But they didn't thrill me.

I discovered the joy of the index card last fall, when my then advisor, Tom Birdseye, shared a nifty plotting technique that uses index cards. I tried it when I got bogged down in a section worse than a truck mired in a muddy back road. I didn't use it to get out of the quagmire and go on--not being a truck, I leapt over the muddy spot and kept writing "like my fingers were on fire," as Kathi Appelt says. But I used the index card technique like a crusher run of number three rock when it was time to rebuild that section of road. (Can you tell I used to sit in on Selectboard meetings? If I paid better attention when the board member with the expertise in hauling talked, I would be able to use the right number for the rock, but road repair talk makes my eyes roll back in my head, necessary though it is.)

Index Cards for Fiction

The road repair technique was nifty and went into my writer's toolbox for use the next time I started a piece of fiction, or at least when I got stuck in one.

Index cards were useful for fiction.

But that's not all!

This winter, after I turned in a truly horrible first draft of a critical thesis (I shudder, really I do), my advisor, Coe Booth, cleared her throat, pointed her index finger at me, and said, "Young lady, you must outline." (Not really, but I'm sure she shook her head over what I gave her and she did tell me I had to write an outline.) It wasn't the first time I'd heard those words. Through my undergraduate years and then again when I was studying for a Ph.D. in German language and literature, at least one professor a semester would demand an outline, usually a week ahead of the paper. I discovered that I could not for the life of me create an outline that would look like the final paper. I'd write the outline, and then, by the time I'd thought more about it and was writing the paper, I'd have changed my mind or reached different conclusions or come up with additional points. The outline usually bore about as much resemblance to the final product as Kaley Cuoco does to Taylor Swift.

So now I was stuck. Coe required an outline with the next draft. I didn't have a choice. And I couldn't really fake it. A) I'm not a faker, and B) The thing about an MFA is, at least at VCFA, there's no point in faking it. It's about giving you the tools you need so you can work on your own after you finish the program.

I flailed. I thrashed. I gnashed my teeth. I gnawed my nails. (Again, not really. But there were some middle of the night moments and along with some not so sound sleep.) I felt haunted. I couldn't do this, but I had to. How was I going to do this thing? Failure was not an option, even though it was inevitable. I had the solid trail of ineffective outlines to prove it.

Eventually, one afternoon, I cleared the dining table, spread out my office supplies--the colored pens, the highlighters, the PostIts, some sheets of scrap paper, and the truly horrible first draft of a critical thesis.

At first, I worked on the sheets of scrap, writing major section titles at the top, points I had made, points I wanted to make, transitions, all of that stuff, underneath in different colored inks.

Revising on Scrap Paper

It worked. But only to a point.

Eventually, I got out the index cards. And the pens, markers and highlighters. I worked off the sheets of scrap paper and off the manuscript, and things began to fall into place.

CT revision with index cards

This was when I first experienced the true magic of the cards, which is this:

  • They are easy to arrange. And rearrange.

  • They don't hold too much information, but they do hold just enough information to be useful.

  • They are easy to rip up.

This last point is, I think, key. Because they are small and only hold so much information, ripping up an index card is not like crossing through a section on a sheet of paper, which you then have to draw arrows into (if you want to insert something) or around, or cut and paste together. If an index card doesn't work, two quick tears, and start another one. It's no big deal. Index cards are the opposite of something being etched in stone, and in that they are freeing. Add, subtract, shuffle, number, renumber. Do whatever, until finally they fall into the order you want. Like a productive game of Solitaire.

Once the cards were in the order that made the most sense, I typed up the outline. I revised the thesis. A few times I had to stop and replan (more index cards) and revise the outline. But--BUT--the result was an outline that matched the thesis. The result was a sense of near-Eureka-quality elation--I could do it! I had the technology. I could build an outline. Finally! There may have been more revisions of the thesis, but none of them were as massive as the first. Because I could outline!

Two weeks ago, when we were going to be traveling and I was going to be doing some revising while my husband was at a seminar, I took the index cards along. The section I was going to revise needed some serious shuffling and a scene, or maybe to, needed to go in. I needed to think about how best to do this. I needed to put down enough information so that when I had time to write all those scenes, I could remember where I was going--but not so much information that I was bored because I had already written it. I figured if the index cards could work for drafting, if they could outline a critical thesis, maybe they could help with revision.

It worked.

index cards as a revision tool

Well enough that when I had my new computer up and running, even though I didn't have the 650 words I wrote that day in the hotel, I was able to get some work done.

That brings me to a final point about index cards. They may be easy to rip up, but

  • They don't vanish into the cyber-ether when your hard drive fails and your computer is out of commission.

They are right there in the real world, accessible, tangible signs to follow however you write. I'm going to be testing out Scrivener on a new project, but I don't think I'm giving up my paper index cards. (Besides, I love my office products too much.)

I got the index cards out today, when I needed to plan how I was going to totally redo a Big Scene, noting what scraps I could reuse from the first draft, but how the overall arc needed to change.

This is what it looked like when I was done. Note the torn card to the left.

index cards for revising 2

Now, I'm ready to revise on.

What's your favorite revision technique? And how are you with outlining?
straw hat
I am going to be the first to admit, it could have been much, much worse. I know of people who have had their laptops and back-ups stolen (do not keep your external hard drive in the same bag as your laptop). I know of people whose laptops (Macs at that) have died irretrievably, right before they were to give a lecture.

All the same, it has been a tough week. The laptop that my daughter used for four years of college, that I had used as my back-up until my four-year-old Dell died sometime in the late winter, that I knew had a limited life-span, and for which I had ordered a replacement days earlier, died.

We were traveling. I had done a day's solid work planning revisions, and writing about 650 words on those revisions. I had coordinated my full semester's bibliography and had interfiled the entries with the running full bibliography I keep as part of the MFA. Why I did not send it to Dropbox, I will never know. It was late, I was tired. I shut down the computer and went to bed.

The next morning the computer would not boot. We traveled on. I enjoyed our trip, reconnecting with my husband's college classmates and with a cousin who lives in Maine. The suspense built until I got home and could take the laptop to the shop.

The guys at the shop are good. I've used them before. They are my go-tos. They said, we should have it for you tomorrow. That was Tuesday. Wednesday, when I got back from having MS Office installed on my computer (a valuable perk of being an adjunct), there was no phone message. Thursday, when I stopped by to drop off a larger storage device, they told me the hard drive had failed. They hadn't given up. Knowing them, they won't until they've explored every possible alley and secret passage.

I, on the other hand, have gone into mourning. I'm not blaming the laptop. It was six years old, it had survived having water spilled over the keyboard its first semester, several cord issues, and a year being plugged into a converter so it could handle European current. I knew it was going to go. I had planned to spend this last week transferring everything in an orderly fashion to the external hard drive and to the new computer. I planned to dive, refreshed, into more revisions and to get to know Scrivener so I'd be ready to use it for the new project I'm planning.

The bibliographies have been recreated. The 650 words will be rewritten and will most likely be better than the ones that were lost. All the same, I have lost some things I treasured--some very special emails, and, most of all, the writing momentum I had.

Rather than diving back into THREE MINUTES THIRTY, I had to wait until I had the software installed, then see what I had for working drafts (I had definitely backed that up, and valiantly). I had to install all those indispensable programs on the new computer (Tweetdeck, Firefox, iTunes, Adobe Reader). It all ate time and took energy. It wasn't until last night that I could really sit down and absorb my advisor's feedback on my last packet and enjoy the praise and think about how I could incorporate the questions and issues she raised (99 percent of them valid).

But before I wade back into the waters of revision, I have three words of advice:


Ideally, in the "cloud" and on an external thumb drive. Do it every day. And if it is super-ooper-duper important, print it out.

If you have a tale of technology woe, feel free to share it. Misery does love company.


Latest Month

October 2014

Reading Raves

Nation (Terry Pratchett), Men of Salt (Michael Benanav), Paper Towns (John Green), Lavinia (Ursula K. LeGuin), Weight (Jeanette Winterson), The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Lisa Papademetriou), Beastly (Alex Flinn), Hogfather (Terry Pratchett), London Calling (Edward Bloor), Before I Die (Jenny Downham), My Mother the Cheerleader (Robert Sharenow), Antsy Does Time (Neal Shuesterman), Against Medical Advice (James Patterson & Hal Friedman), Wait for Me (An Na), Doppelganger (David Stahler), The Year We Disappeared (Cylin Busby, John Busby); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow); King of Screwups (K.L. Going), Tyrell (Coe Booth), Goth Girl Rising (Barry Lyga), Bad Apple (Laura Ruby), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Hold Still (Nina LaCour), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green & David Levitahn), Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (Eric Luper), Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray), Front & Center (Catherine Gilbert Murdock), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett), Tales of the Madman Underground (John Barnes), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King), Sex: A Book for Teens (Nikol Hasler), The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Greg Taylor), Crazy (Han Nolan), Pull (B.A. Binns), Pearl (Jo Knowles)


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