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I finished a book! I feel guilty.

I feel guilty. And embarrassed. And like I need to make up for lost time. See, I finished a book and met my deadline. The companion to MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE BREAKING was due February 15, and I had to--ya know, finish the book. And this is when writing--the thing I most love doing--gets really, really awful. It gets really awful for two reasons: 1.) because I hate writing a draft more than I hate certain dental procedures (true story) and 2.) because I end up feeling like a super self-indulgent awful human being while I'm doing it. So even though there's reason to celebrate: OMG, I finished my FIFTH BOOK!--sixth, if you count the one in my drawer that will never be published--I still feel bad.

The drafting stuff I've talked about before, and will happily do another post about in another week, once I've forgotten the pain.

But I've never written about the guilt and awfulness.

Writing book takes time. Lots and lots of time. Time in front of a computer, outside of regular life. And when your regular life already consists of a full time job and two kids and a husband and a dog, guess when the writing happens? Around the margins. And most of the time, that works. I write at night, or while my oldest is at preschool and the younger one naps. But when a deadline looms, and there are parts of the plot that still need drafting and you hope to go through the whole book and do a revision before your editor sees it...well, the margins don't cut it anymore. So for the past month, I had to ramp it up: on days I wasn't teaching, I'd drop my preschooler off at school (leave the baby home with my husband), and go write. Pick up preschooler, and some days I'd eat lunch and go right back out again. And work at night. On weekends, I'd scoot out for two hours in the morning, before the baby's nap, and/or for a block of time in the afternoon. Husband is a telecommuting freelancer, so fortunately he's been available to pick up the slack--and vacuum and feed the small people who live with us.

But that doesn't make it any easier.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah or (less kindly) ego, to create art, I guess. It's a conviction that this story needs to be told, this painting needs to be painted, this sculpture is worth sculpting and poem is worth writing. That in a world with ever-increasing demands on our time and resources, that we're still. Alone. Thoughtful. And "not accomplishing anything." Just writing. "Just writing" doesn't do my laundry or locate the roughly 7,682,000 Squinkies that litter my daughter's bedroom floor, or teach my son how to put the blocks in his shape sorter. It doesn't get rid of the cobwebs that magically appear in the corners or clean the bathroom. Or prep for my classes. Or grocery shop.

It doesn't even answer email or futz around on Facebook.

"Just writing," is me, my iTunes, and a soy chai. It's one eye on the clock and all of my concentration on my characters. It's making notes and figuring out plot points and remembering that I had those characters talk about X early in the book and it better pay off later. It's being able to switch from "mommy mode" to "pro mode" really quickly. And I'm so, so grateful that I get to do this and get paid for it--don't get me wrong!--I just feel BAD sometimes, that I like it so much. And that I not only get to do it--that it's MY JOB to do it. Someone on the other end of the line is waiting for these stories now. And no matter how guilty I feel about taking the hours away from my daytime life to do it, it's important.

I want my children to see their mom doing what she loves, but that doesn't make it easier when I have to tell my daughter that I can't play Secret Agent Princess right now, I have to go write. Or that she can't wear her t-shirt with the dog wearing a top hat on it to school today, because I still haven't done the laundry. Or that we're having Crockpot Chicken Mess for dinner tonight--again. I still feel guilty.

And it's a guilt that all working moms feel. But on the worst days, the days when one of them is recovering from the stomach flu (three times in four weeks!) and my husband hasn't had a chance to shower, and I'm scooting out to sit in a coffee shop and write, I feel a little silly and self-indulgent: Really? Someone's going to read my books? With all the other stuff that's out there? Why bother? Those are the hard days.

And those are the days I'm recovering from now. Book turned in, cobwebs dusted. Still working my way through the laundry (egads). Meatballs are in the crock pot. This morning, I spent some some quality time with my son, the shape sorter, and some Karen Katz lift-the-flap books. At lunch after preschool, Husband and I introduced our daughter to shrimp sashimi and she demolished the innards of our California Roll.

And when the babysitter came, I scooted out to write.

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The Did Do List: Taking a look back

I love my jobs--all of them. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to teach, and--hello!--being a writer?! That's living out my childhood dream. 

But lately, I've been stressed out. I'm on deadline, the day job work is piling up, one kid has been sick, the other one teething. That combo isn't good. Times like this, writing feels selfish. There are just so many other pieces of life that need my attention. Plus, drafting a book is always the worst part of the process for me. It's difficult and painful and a bit like groping in a dark room for a light switch (only I'm searching for plot). I'm also trying something new with this one: writing from a boy's POV. That creates added doubt--is the voice right? Is it exciting enough? Will readers think I'm a fraud?--and pressure. I start worrying that I'm not good enough, that I haven't made the right choices. Then I go into a bookstore or library and see a squillion books on the shelves and despair that anyone will ever find mine--especially if they're shelved wrong. Everything piles together creating a multi-layer Cake of Doom and I go back to contemplating dental school. Existential crises ensues. Ugh.

So, a few weeks ago, while I still had (some) of my wits about me, I took a break from making to do lists and made a Did Do list. I spent a few minutes jotting down the great things that I've had the chance to do since I started writing, the goals I've met, the people I've learned from, and the bright moments for my books. The result surprised me. It showed me that the work has paid off and that the stress and the doubt and the worry will go away, hopefully to be replaced by something wonderfully unknowable at this point. 

I'm guilty of being a "what's next" type of person. I finish a project, am satisfied for about eleven seconds, and then I move on to the next thing. My Did Do list serves as a gentle reminder to take a little more time and value not only what I put into my past, but to trust that the work I'm doing now will make for a good future. It reminds me to breathe. It reminds me that, yes, even in the midst of a squillion books, and on the wrong shelf, a hand might pick up my story. Amazing.

Do it. Your Did Do list has more on it than you think. 

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I love suspenseful, scary movies and TV shows ("American Horror Story" is one of my favorites). And, well, add zombies or the CIA and terrorists? I'm hooked. But those shows offer more than just edge-of-my-seat TV: they both have great writing. And although it seems that my humorous tween style doesn't have anything to do with the undead or the downfall of the US government, I've learned a lot from these two hits. 

Five Things I've Learned About Writing from The Walking Dead and Homeland

1. It's not about the zombies. Or the terrorists.
The biggest complaint that I hear from people who've never seen Walking Dead is that they "don't like zombies." And yeah, there are zombies and grossness in the story. But the show is not about zombies: it's about people. These characters are thrust into a situation where they have to fight for survival, and that brings out some very intense emotional reactions and personality traits. Same with Homeland--although it's "about" terrorism, it's interpersonal relationships that drive the show.
Writing takeaway: Pay attention to how the characters are growing emotionally, don't let an exciting premise substitute for quality character development.

2. Up the ante.
Last season on Walking Dead, a child went missing. She got separated from the group, got lost in the woods, and was gone for most of the season. A child. I held my breath for at least 8 weeks while the survivors searched for her. In Homeland, Carrie, played by Claire Danes, perpetually makes bad personal decisions that put her career in jeopardy. With both stories, there's tons at stake--people's jobs, lives, way of life--big stuff is on the table, every week. This makes their audience super invested in every move the characters make.
Writing takeaway: Go there. Take risks. Your readers won't be able to look away.

3. No one is safe.
Oh man, anyone on the Walking Dead can be zombie-fodder, any time. Beloved characters, walk-ons...anyone. Those writers have some cajones, because they're slowly killing off their core group of survivors. It's so hard to watch sometimes--BUT SO GOOD. The zombie apocalypse is not real, but they're playing it real: people will die. People you love will die. Sickness, stupidity, bad luck--anything can tip the scales against you. And you know what? I'd lose respect for the show if the main characters came out unscathed all the time. 
Writing takeaway: Put characters on the chopping block (metaphorically, in my case). Ruin a relationship. Get in there and mess up their lives. The more protected a character is, the less a reader will connect with them. Life is not safe.

4. Invest in structure.
One thing that works unbelievably well in both shows is the way the writers have taken the long view on the plots. There are seeds planted in the first season of the Walking Dead that are just now starting to pay off. Homeland is all about the long game. Each episode stands on its own as entertaining and gripping, but, again, it's the far-reaching plot points that keep audience members hooked.
Writing takeaway: Especially for a plunger like me, the attention to plotting is key. What can I subtly set up in the beginning of the book that pays off later?

5. Pack the scenes.
Nothing is wasted in these stories--every scene reveals something about character or pushes the plot forward. There's no loitering, nothing irrelevant. In narratives that thrive on suspense, if you slow down you lose your edge. The key is moving forward, fast, without sacrificing character growth and depth. Hard stuff.
Writing takeaway: Keep that story moving. Evaluate the significance of each scene; brutally edit.

Although these elements of writing are ones that we've heard before, seeing all of them executed so well at the same time reminds me just how effective they are. 

And zombies and terrorists don't hurt, either.

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Spooky questions and stuff to win!

 So, how do you do it? And where do you like to do it?

Your WRITING!  I'm really interested in other writers' process (oh, this is sounding worse and worse, isn't it?). So, answer me these questions, of you will:

• Where do you do most of your writing? Office? Kitchen? At work? On the subway?
• How do you write? Notes, longhand, computer composer?
• What weird (or not so weird) quirks do you have? Must you always wear the same pants? Use the same pencil?

Do tell...

*  *   *   *

And if you feel like sharing even more, head over to the 2009 Debs community. Answer a few questions about scary books and frightening fiction, and you could win cool prizes. And chocolate!

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Is it worth the work?

Spent the past few days doing some revisions on the first third of my new manuscript. Now that I have an idea where it's going, things are coming together. Today I was back at the keyboard for another 1300 words. Yay!

A few friends who read the blog have recently asked me about my writing routine--they want to know if it's "worth the work," and if I'm "losing my summer vacation" by spending "so much time writing."

"Of course it's worth it!" was my immediate, gleeful response. Maybe I was too gleeful...

"Okay...just checking," was the reply, with a nervous we're-not-sure-you're-stable expression, then the subject changed. But I kept thinking about it.

I *love* what I do. LOVE it. For me, writing 1,000 words per day is a luxury. This summer, I'm actually making it a huge priority to sit and write, every single day, no matter what. Yes, I have a goal in mind, and yes, there is a time frame attached to it--but that's the way I operate with anything. I'm a goal/deadline driven person (if I didn't have a goal, I'd spend all day watching Law & Order reruns on TBS. Or USA. Or TNT...). Instead, I'm able to structure my day around doing what I love. I don't dread sitting down with my laptop. I look forward to having that time to be creative and develop the manuscript. And I am protecting that time. I don't answer the phone when I'm writing. I haven't over-booked myself with social events, leaving no time to write. It's amazing!

Not that it's always easy. Yes, I struggle with figuring out the plot elements. Yep, there are definitely days when I judge myself too harshly...but to me, those challenges are a lot more fun to puzzle out than the ones that I've faced working as an editor, or a marketing assistant, or (shhhh!) even a teacher. It's a different type of gratification.

So yeah, it's definitely worth it. And, oddly, my summer is moving at a much slower pace than it has in years past--maybe because I'm not running all over the place and filling every second, or working at my full-time job. Instead, I'm enjoying each day and feeling good about the work I'm doing; and when I do see friends, I don't feel anxious because I'm not doing what I need to, and I'm not trying to figure out when I can squeeze that much-needed writing time in.

Here's to a summer's worth of work!

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Process breakthrough

I've nearly doubled my word count from when I started, and am making good progress on my goal:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
15,870 / 50,000

I'm much more of a character-oriented writer, as opposed to a plot-oriented one. As a result, I don't always have a handle on where the story is going next, which I've (obviously) been really struggling with recently. Over the past two nights, though, I've had a breakthrough of sorts. I wrote a scene on Monday where a teacher gave the main character's class an assignment. An aspect of the assignment (building a model) then lead me to a major plot point in the novel. Last night, after finishing my writing for the day, I spent time creating a rough outline of the plot. Voila! Now I know where the book has to go, and how to tighten the beginning to move it in that direction. It's a great feeling. So instead of writing for the next couple of days, I'm going to print the whole thing out and do some major edits to get the manuscript on track. If all goes well, I'll be able to resume my 1000 words/day on Monday--with a renewed energy, a specific direction, and a stronger book. Hooray!

The interesting thing about this little experience? I *finally* realized today that this is part of my creative process. A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story entitled "Artificial Colors" which was published in an online magazine. I had a clear character in my head, and set the scene, but I had no idea where the plot was going. As I was writing, however, I kept thinking about this bag of Doritos that the main character was munching on through the beginning of the story. That snack ended up being the pivotal element of the whole plot! Same thing with my other novel, BEAUTY BINGE. The main character has repeated fittings for this awful junior bridesmaid dress throughout the story, and I finally made the connection to use the dress to tie two divergent plot lines together. Does this mean my subconscious knows where the story is going before I do? Or is it that I'm triggered by a specific object in the story? Either way, I'm just happy that it happens.

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• MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE BREAKING (Dial 2013) was highlighted in the Atlantic Wire's Summer Reading Roundup!

• TOTAL TRAGEDY was named to the master list of Massachusetts Children's Book Awards 2013-2014

• New book alert! MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE BREAKING will be in stores July 11 2013

• NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL BAND GEEK is out in paperback! And it's on the Texas Lone Star List!

• TOTAL TRAGEDY has been named to the Texas Lone Star list as well as Kansas' KNEA Reading Circle catalog (with a starred recommendation)

• TOTAL TRAGEDY is out in paperback! Ask for it at a bookstore near you.

• TOTAL TRAGEDY has gone into its third printing! Thanks to everyone who bought it!

• MODELS has gone into its fifth printing! Thank you!!

• Have you seen the TT trailer? Go here & check it out:

• Disney's Family Fun Magazine and Girl's Life mag both loved TT! Check out the reviews in their February issues!

• I've signed stock recently at the following stores:
- Barnes & Noble, Framingham, MA

• Booklist says, "Some sisterly bonding, the sweet flutterings of a first romance, and a creatively contrived comeuppance for the mean girls make [TOTAL TRAGEDY] a cheerful read for younger middle-schoolers."