Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What a Short, Wonderful Trip It's Been*

Twenty-two years and four months ago today, I delivered my first child, a beautiful, tiny, baby boy born in the wee hours (minutes, really) of Easter Sunday morning. He arrived a month early. (I don't believe he's been early for anything since.)

One week ago today, I delivered that same baby, now a beautiful young man to his new life in Seattle where he has an apartment overlooking Puget Sound, a job he's been dreaming about since he started college 4 years ago, and, at least as far as I can see it, the world by a string.

And it all passed in the blink of an eye.

How did it all happen, I found myself wondering on our 2200 mile drive west. Where did the time go? In his grin and in his sweetness, I can still see the little boy who fell out of his chair just about every day in 1st grade. And I also saw his intelligence and determination as he figured out, several times, how to back up the 17-foot truck with a car being towed behind it. Often when I'd pulled it a smidge too close to the gas pump or the curb or the building wall in the alley. I'd first seen those qualities when he'd finish a puzzle without asking for any help or follow the painstaking directions putting a lego project together.

I remember back to those precious quiet moments you only get with your first baby, those hours of rocking and nursing and staring at this person who relied on me for everything (that's true terror!), wondering who he might grow up to be. I hoped he'd find a career he'd love, a career that would fill him in all good ways. I wanted a life for him filled with passion and joy and challenge and satisfaction. And he's making it happen. He picked his dream city and he sent out letters and resumes and he now gets to claim his life. I'm thrilled and humbled.

We had lots of time to talk on our drive, and it was a luxury I haven't had with him in I don't know how long. At home, we chat, but it seems always in passing. When he's been away at school, there's the occasional relaxing phone call, but more often it's a quick "How are you? Love you. Bye." But the road stretched out before us, mountains and plains and rivers, and we talked. About politics and the environment and music. But a good deal of the time was spent reminiscing. As parents, I think we often wonder what they'll take away from their childhoods. What will they remember and hold fast to? I wasn't always patient or creative. I remember being tired much of the time. Should I have done more of this or less of that? We wonder and worry and try our hardest and hope for the best. But even then we don't always know.

But then, somewhere in South Dakota (after the keys had been locked in the truck but before we'd discovered the brakes were a tad touchy), he told me what a great childhood he'd had, how he loved those summers of adding on to his fort in the backyard and exploring in the woods near the park, how our neighborhood had been just right, filled with kids of all ages to play with and learn from, and how he was glad he'd had such unprogrammed summers filled with inventions and activities the kids dreamed up, and I felt myself relax. I'd done good. And so had he.

So, after the drive and the unloading and the short few hours of sleep before my flight home, when I hugged him goodbye at the airport and kissed his neck, I knew we were both ready for this next part of our lives together. People have asked if I'm sad he's so far away or if I cried when I said goodbye. And I'm not and I didn't. There's nothing to be sad or weepy about--22 very short years ago, I set out on a promise to give him roots and wings. And looking at him now, I think I accomplished both.

* With apologies to Jerry and the rest of the band for the paraphrase

(Cross-posted at Channeling Erma)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

GCC and Road Tripping

How appropriate that the book I'll be "touring" this week for you (as part of the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit) is Driving Sideways by Jess Riley and it's about a roadtrip of sorts and through the magic of "post options" on blogger, you're reading this while I'm on a roadtrip of my own as my son, his girlfriend and I drive a 17 foot U-Haul, towing her car behind us, from St. Louis to Seattle. They've each got spanking new college diplomas and dream jobs in their fields waiting for them--I have a hunch I'll garner some material for future posts (and maybe books!) along the way, but enough about me.

Back to Jess and her book, which tells the story of Leigh Fielding, a twenty-eight year-old kidney transplant recipient who—six years, hundreds of dialysis sessions, and a million bad poems after being diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease—finally feels strong enough to pursue a few lofty goals she’s been mulling for years: find herself, her kidney donor’s family, and the mother that abandoned her over twenty years ago.

And what better way to do just that than a solitary road trip across the country? Well, maybe not entirely solitary, because Leigh suspects she may have inherited more than just an organ from her deceased donor. It’s this sneaking suspicion that takes her trip down some unexpected detours—and the juvenile delinquent who blackmails Leigh into giving her a ride is only the beginning.

Booklist calls it “Smart and funny without being forced, sentimental without being maudlin" and it's currently hailed as a BREAKOUT BOOK for Target!

It sounds like exactly the kind of read that'll keep me occupied (when I'm not driving, of course!) driving through South Dakota. Here's Jess in her own words:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?
For Driving Sideways, I began with a premise and very basic plot, but once the main character was born, she took the story in her own direction entirely! I think for commercial fiction, you need a healthy balance between plot and character. Things need to happen to hold a reader’s interest—and you need a bang-up beginning, solid middle, and satisfying conclusion, with believable character development along the way. So it’s really a mix.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?
Oh, I adore Leigh. But most people find Denise the most entertaining, repulsive, hilarious, dangerous, and wicked character. They either love her or hate her, because she’s larger than life, missing many of the internal censors the rest of us have due to familial, financial, and societal mores and constraints. I wanted to create a character I could egg on, someone who would say or do the things most of us are unable or unwilling to. Someone you wanted to slap and embrace, sometimes in the same hour. Someone you might suspect as lacking a conscience, but ultimately you conclude she’s a good-hearted sociopath. She was a blast to create!

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?
I have a little corner office I hunker down in: it’s so cozy, with just enough space for me and my dog. I wrote Driving Sideways in the mornings, during my summer months off, every day until I felt like stopping. Now, because I’m juggling first-book promotion activities while simultaneously trying to finish book #2, I find myself writing fiction late at night. I’m still trying to figure out how to balance the two. (And it’s a good problem—one I never thought I’d have!!)

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?
I love when my characters take on a life of their own and run away with the story. When you actually lose yourself and tap into the collective subconscious. That’s where the magic happens, and it’s the drug that has me hooked.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?
I think different bits of advice are appropriate during different phases of the writing process. As a struggling writer with no agent, what I connected with was “Never give up” and “You always have room to improve your craft.” After I had a book contract, that shifted to “Writing is a craft, publishing is a casino” and “You will be the biggest advocate for your own book (so get off your butt and self-promote).” The advice I would give any aspiring writer is to connect with other writers for support, growth, and community. The same applies to newbie novelists—it’s a lonely profession, and I’d be lost without the friendship and assistance I’ve found from other writers at the same stage in their careers.

So, until next week, when I'll have more book recommendations, happy reading and safe motoring!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Novel 101 (Bonus Edition)--Or why I love massages

Bet that got your attention, huh? Okay, so here's the scoop--

For the past five years or so, I've been getting regular, monthly massages. It's good for my health--physical and emotional (and, as you'll see if you keep reading, also good for my writing). My massage therapist has become a friend, and I look forward to seeing her. But, I have a confession to make. Sometimes I cheat on her. Last winter a friend gave me a gift certificate to a spa for a massage (she didn't know I was already seeing somebody). And, you know, different can be good. So, occasionally, when say my regular masseuse and I get off schedule or she has to go out of town, I sneak over to the spa to see Geoff.

Or like today.

Last week I decided to up my workout and rather than just walk, I started jogging every few blocks. I was all about getting more fit. It was working well. Until yesterday when my lower back felt like someone was jackhammering on it. With flamethrowers. Geoff fit me in. I explained that I'd started running and my lower back was now killing me. He nodded. Told me to start out face down and left the room. I did as I was told. When he came back in he started working on my legs. And then he explained what had happened. My hamstrings were really tight. So were my glutes (not in a good way). That had caused my lower back muscles to seize up. Also, my abs are not as strong as they could be (like I didn't know that!), which caused further strain on my back.

Great, Judy, you're saying. Fascinating. So you're in bad shape. Why do we care?

Here's where it gets cool and morphs into Novel 101.

I realized that what often seems to be the presenting problem isn't always the issue. I'd been applying heat to my back--which felt good but didn't help my hamstrings. Just like when a scene isn't working--maybe it's because an earlier section is too tight (like my hamstrings). Or another part isn't strong enough (like my abs). Just fixing the immediate scene might not be the fix you really need. Unless your novel is just a bunch of vignettes (and even then, probably), the problems are more than likely systemic--you've got to look at the whole. And when you shift one thing around, you probably need to see what muscles that change is pulling at. And when you can't get one part right, maybe rather than gnash your teeth and tear your hair out and rewrite that one specific part until you're blue in the face and ready to chuck the whole thing in the shredder, maybe what you should do is step back and think about what comes before and what comes after--and ask if those parts are as strong as they could be. Or too intense. What needs toning? What needs to be unknotted?

Ah, now doesn't that make sense? And one more tip--getting a massage is never a bad idea.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Novel 101--"Ripeness is all"

So, it's been awhile since I've blogged here and even longer since I've had a Novel 101 post. Lots of reasons for this, but no good excuses.

The quote above is from my favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear. And, the point of it has been made clear to me yet again. (That's one of the totally cool things about my old buddy Bill--the truths he writes about apply on so many levels and keep teaching me even when I'm not looking for it.). Let me try to explain.

I'm not a patient person. I try, but it's a struggle. (Just ask my family.) But, I know that plenty of things are better with age. With ripening. The tomatoes in my garden. Wine. I know that things take time. There are processes which should not and cannot be rushed. I mean, heck, I'm a writer--getting an agent and publishing my first book took seven years. I've never been in the army, but I sometimes think the phrase "hurry up and wait" came from the submission process rather than the military.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, "ripeness is all." Things happen when they're meant to happen, being ready matters, and don't rush things that shouldn't be rushed. I know this; I just don't always embrace it.

Then, at the end of last week, after finishing the workbook for Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, and after reviewing my notes and ideas and list of "what ifs" for my revision, I pulled out a hard copy of the MS of my novel, the one I thought I'd finished in February, but now know I haven't. The copy I hadn't looked at, not once, since February 28. And I started reading it. Almost immediately I went in search of several colored flair pens and these handy dandy little page flags:

Because, I'd discovered something in my MS--it wasn't as "done" as I'd thought. Having not looked at it in four months had given me some perspective, some "ripening"--I was finally ready to see the scenes that needed sharpening, the lines that needed some edge, the passages of prose that needed to be (eek!) killed off.

Even more important, as I started reading I understood some things about my protagonist I hadn't seen clearly before. She'd ripened as well, into someone even more complex than I'd initially seen.

We'd needed the distance from each other, the aging, the perspective--as much as I hadn't wanted to be patient, it had been a good thing (okay, there, Mom, I said it. I finally learned it. Blah, blah, blah, okay, okay, okay, patience is a virtue!).

So, that's my tidbit of writerly wisdom for the week (or maybe month, we'll see how things go). As hard as it can be, as much as I might want to send the MS off to readers, to my agent, to the world, I have to wait for the ripening--I have to allow for the cool days of spring and the warm rains of summer and the sunshine and moonlight and all that it requires. Then I have to look at it again and I have to trust that when it's truly ready, I'll know because my own words will tell me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

We All Have to Start Somewhere

My buddy, Meg Waite Clayton (who I blogged about last week), has a fabulous blog called 1st Books, where she invites authors to chat about their journeys to their first books. I'm featured today which is pretty cool, but I know you'll want to check it out every Wednesday.

And, in the small world category, Meg and I met through our agent, got to be buddies through the blogosphere, and when we dug into each others pasts we discovered we'd gone to the same high school and graduated one year apart (but hadn't known each other back then. It was a big school). I pulled out my yearbook from 1976 and there we were, bad 70's hair and all.

I've also got a post up over at my group clog, so if you're craving more of my dulcet words, hop on over here.