Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Way Out Water Towers!


My daughter is obsessed with water towers. There’s a big one at the top of the hill on our regular walking route. Ever since The Miss discovered it, she’s been fascinated by every water tower we encounter. Plain ones. Fancy ones. Doesn’t matter. On our recent camping trip, she pointed out every water tower between home and Two Rivers, Wisconsin. And there are a lot more than you’d imagine. We’ve become so accustomed to looking for water towers that I find myself calling out, “Water tower!” when she isn’t even in the car. (I recently took a photo of the water tower in Arena because Julia wasn’t there to see it with me.) So it seemed natural to suggest we go to the library and check out some books on water towers. She jumped around the kitchen, yelling “Wat-oo tow-oos! Wat-oo tow-oos!” arms flapping like a baby condor. She was excited; I was excited for coming up with an idea that made her so unabashedly ecstatic. I could hardly drive there fast enough.

Then we hit a bump in the road. Who’d have thunk it, but water tower books are a rare breed.

I won’t bore you with everything I went through, from dealing with a really disappointed little kid to trying to find another source for a water tower book. Let’s just say my efforts were both exhaustive and exhausting. Finally, it occurred to me, after all hope seemed extinguished. Why not write one myself?

Now, let me clarify something before I go a single step further: I have no desire to write for children. Sorry. My work can’t stand up to an audience that sharp. But I can write for the most important kid in my life. I’d written a book for her earlier this year—Little Girl in the Woods, a board book about my sweetie’s passion for camping. So I figured slapping this puppy together this should be a snap, right?

Not necessarily. I’ve learned a few interesting things thus far and thought I’d share them here.

1) MAKING TECHNICAL STUFF EASY ENOUGH FOR KIDS IS A BITCH. Yep, kids are smart little stinkers, but sentence length and vocabulary are an issue. Plus, kids have a limited set of experiences you can refer to in analogies. How to explain hydrostatic pressure to a little kid? Hell, I don’t get it myself! The best thing I can liken it to that she (and I) might understand is the feeling you get when you have to pee. Classy, I know. But I’m at a loss here.

2) YOU CAN BE LAZY AND LARCENOUS WHEN YOU’RE WRITING FOR YOUR OWN KID. I’m talking about pesky little legal landmines like cross-checking information, listing source credits, and obtaining publishing rights to photos. As far as I’m concerned, an initial search on Wikipedia and a cross check with is verification enough for me. But I doubt a publisher would think so. And what about all those photos I helped myself to on various websites? Let’s face it, getting rights to all that stuff would be a bear. Not to mention prohibitively expensive.

3) THERE’S NO SLAPPING TOGETHER ANY KIND OF PROJECT FOR CHILDREN. I spent two hours on the introduction yesterday. Yep, two hours to write 93 words. And that’s after the three hours I spent researching and outlining the day before. Had I operated that slowly in college, I’d still be sitting in College Comp. The discouraging part is I still have many sections to write and I haven’t even begun to think about page design. The way this thing is going, I figure she’ll either have lost interest in the entire topic or graduated high school by the time I’m halfway though.

4) I MUST BE INSANE. I add this as the only logical conclusion, considering I’m moving forward on this in spite of the aforementioned points. And I won’t even get into the lack-of-time rant again. My only defense is I love my kid. I guess that’s reason enough.

So Way Out Water Towers moves forward, God help me. It won’t be at a store near you, so don’t look for it. And don’t look for anything else I write, either. I’ll be so busy inventing non-bodily function analogies for hydrostatic pressure that I doubt I’ll have time to work on anything else.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

To Submit or Not to Submit


I’ve been encountering an uncomfortable phenomenon lately. It’s called Why the Hell Did I Submit That (WTHDIST) Syndrome. Basically, WTHDIST is a condition where I pray for a rejection on a submitted story because I’ve figured out that it actually sucks.

I experienced WTHDIST just this morning. I’d been waiting on a response from my story, “The Game,” from Espresso Fiction for a few months. And this morning, the response arrived. I can’t describe for you the feeling of dread I had as I looked at the innocent Thank you for your submission to Espresso Fiction subject line. Usually, this is because I love a story and don’t want to see it rejected. But with “The Game,” it was a definite case of WTHDIST. Frankly, “The Game” is a damned stupid story. I’d be embarrassed to see it get published.

I filed away my rejection on Duotrope Digest’s handy-dandy Response Tracker, but a feeling of dread still hung on me. I wandered over to my remaining list of pending responses. And there, in all it’s hideousness, it was: a 118 day pending response entry for a little ditty titled “Nighttime Daddy.” I’d submitted the story to LitBits in a fit of pique after the story didn’t make the cut in a Writer’s Digest’s Your Story contest. 118 days later, this thing was haunting me like the lamb kebabs from my favorite Afghan restaurant. I found myself praying: please don’t let this thing get accepted. Or wishing it was lost in cyberspace.

The whole thing got me thinking: how do we decide what to submit and what not to submit? I’d like to think I can tell good from bad. But, usually, until I get a rejection, I often believe with naive earnestness that even my homeliest, gap-toothed, drooling babies are exquisite and graceful swans. Clearly, my internal editor has a bad wire.

But I think the real problem comes earlier in the process, long before I seek out a market, write my cover letter and send my darlings on their way. Bad stories are born of bad ideas. And bad ideas should be nipped before they sprout. I should dump duds early rather than waste time finishing and editing it. Then I could spend my time on the good stuff.

Easier said than done. Maybe it’s a matter of experience. Or of refining my literary palate. I wish I knew. Time is precious. I don’t want to waste it. And I don’t want to live with any WTHDIST’s haunting me by, somehow, making it into print.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Flood


Things aren’t great here in Southeastern Wisconsin. We’ve been inundated with torrential rains. Our rivers are swollen beyond capacity and have overflowed their banks. In Racine, Waukesha, and South Milwaukee, cars float in the streets and people have been evacuated from their homes. West of us in Lake Delton (a popular tourist area), the lake swelled over its earthen dam to come home to the Wisconsin River. I saw the video and it scared the heck out of me, how fast our world can slip away. In moments, the lake drained and roads and homes (whole homes!) were suddenly, irrevocably lost.

Here at home, we’ve had our own weather disasters, but nothing on the same scale. We were away for the worst of the storms here, enjoying a quiet weekend camping on Lake Michigan. It poured the last night and morning of our trip. My daughter and I sat in the car while I watched my poor husband take down the sopping wet camper. Halfway home, I called our house and my friend Pam told me the sewer had backed up in our basement. My heart sank at the news. My husband had spent three years remodeling down there. The carpet, installed in January, was the capstone on a beautifully executed project. I still remember how proud and pleased he was as he showed off his handiwork at Easter. Now everything was saturated with yucky black sewer sludge. We rode home quiet, lost in our own sense of helplessness.

Since I got home, I’ve longed for the sense of normalcy, the routine that keeps my days sane. We live and die by routine around here. Husband to work, then breakfast. Walk, play/errand/library/park time, lunch, TV, read, then down for a nap. Most days, I’m ready for a nap myself by then, but I can’t bear to give up my precious Mommy time. The afternoons are when I write.

With all the chaos, we’re completely off-kilter. My husband stayed home from work to mop up the sludge. I’ve been wringing out the dripping camping gear. It needs to be done, but it’s created a hole in my life and it happened in it’s own kind of flood. A few changes led to a shift in the sense of balance. A camping trip, a husband home from work. Before I knew it, order was swept away.

For me, not writing creates its own flood. A day or two off and I start to get antsy. As the days slip away, a backlog of thoughts clogs my brain. Before long, I start to turn, sniping at my daughter, bitchily ragging at my husband. But mainly, I turn on myself. I’m a waste of space. I need to get my act together. How do I ever expect to make it if I don’t write? Pretty soon everything feels off, like my body chemistry’s out of whack or my planets have spun out of alignment. My sense of self and purpose crumbles and washes away. I lose myself, one facet at a time.

I’m on day six here. Last Thursday morning before we hooked up the camper, I did a little scribbling as ideas for a revised start to Nick’s story came. I meant to get to them while we were gone, but the days slid away over the bump in our routine. Then the mess at home consumed my energy. At this point, I just hope I can find my crumpled page of scribbles. I’m fidgety and nervous. My list is too long. Without the routine to structure and the writing to provide an outlet, I’m caught up in a weird kind of flood. The chaos without mirrors the chaos within. I need a dam and I need it damn quick.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Over-tweakers Anonymous


I had something discouraging happen twice in the last week. Just when I thought I’d finished something, I reread and discovered I was far from done. One was the beginning to the Nick short story, “The Great Divide.” The other was a somewhat unimportant scene in Somewhere on The Road to Me. Both had been cooling for a week or so while I stepped away for a dose of perspective.

I can’t tell you how disheartened I was when I came back and saw my own drivel. In the case of “The Great Divide,” I’d been sure I was ready to submit. But really, I’d created a mess. I’d crafted paragraphs of weighty, poetic description, had fully developed themes before my story even started. I’d written one entire page of a guy looking at telephone lines while sitting in a hot spring. What the hell was I thinking? I’d clearly overwritten.

I don’t know about you, but I could tinker a sentence into complete oblivion. Tweak a little here, reword a bit there, maybe shorten, or re-punctuate, break it into two, jam two together with a conjunction or a comma splice, throw in another snazzy image. Maybe do all of the above until the revision bears no resemblance to the original. Unless you’re Hemingway and you write nothing but unalloyed gold, there’s always the option of mixing things up a bit. But with that possibility comes the chance of overwriting. Damn. I clung when I should have let go.

I think this is what’s killing me with Beth’s story. (okay, I know) I’m so doggedly determined to get every phrasing just right that I belabor even the shortest scenes. Why do I do that? I’m driving myself nuts. Not to mention I’m getting so damn sick of Beth, I’m starting to understand why her mother gets so pissed at her.

But the real shame is that I’m losing Beth’s freshness. Too many similes, too many artful phrasings. Too much writing when I should just shut up. My overly stylized sentences are taking attention away from the story and placing it smack dab on me. And this story isn’t about me. Or it shouldn’t be. I could kick myself for being a pompous ass.

So, once more back to the drawing board with another fine line I need to identify. And as usual, I have more questions than answers. How do I stop annoying my manuscripts with petty revisions? How do I take myself out of a process that’s so entirely personal? I want to just say no to annoying revision, but I’m addicted without a support group in sight.