Ninth Newsletter: I hate waiting

I send out a bi-monthly-ish newsletter. This is the the ninth one, sans the (frankly adorable) photos that accompaned it when it went straight to subscribers’ inboxes. If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, and get access to my special “subscribers only” warm fuzzies page sign up here!

** Goodbye Summer
This summer has felt like a time of waiting, of holding my breath in expectation, of holding off on turning the last page of a chapter I really loved.

This was the last summer before the kid started Kindergarten. For the first time since he stopped napping, I didn’t ask anyone to babysit him while I took time to work. I wanted to savor this last summer before he became a big kid, before summer would start to mean something different to him than just a season. With Kindergarten looming, I knew there would soon be a lot more time than I’ve had in years to work. So instead, we read in bed almost every morning (the kid has discovered chapter books! It’s glorious!). We went swimming. The kid went of his first trail ride. We went camping in the tiny coastal town of Mendocino, a favorite summer tradition. The kid attended Lego camp– and so did I (not exactly the plan, but oh well). As the summer came to a close, we got on each other’s nerves a lot. It made starting Kindergarten easier–which maybe was the point of all that arguing?–and now I feel a little like how I did when I Shall Be Near To You first hit the shelves. It’s
exciting and nerve-wracking that after five-and-a-half years (about the same length of time I worked on I Shall), the kid is now beginning a part of his life that I’m not really a part of.

** Plodding Along

This summer has also been filled with twinned moments of savoring and sadness and the kind of waiting I dread. This winter, our beloved sixteen year old dog Roxy had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor had gotten too scary to ignore. We hoped the surgery would buy Roxy enough time to live out the rest of her life comfortably, and she was so happy afterwards. But almost as soon as the incision healed (which took months), the tumor came back. Every day it is bigger and uglier and there are no good treatment options anymore. And yet every day Roxy gets up to go out on her porch. Every day she cruises the yard. Every day she wags her tail and asks for scratches and begs for cheese and sausage and I give her whatever she wants and look the other way when she steals cat food. I have been trying to come to terms with the idea that this will likely be Roxy’s last summer (and still, I can’t even write it as a definitive statement). The picture above is from the first time in months
that Roxy joined us for a walk down the road, one of her favorite pastimes. I wanted to savor it because I’m not sure it will ever happen again. I have been saying goodbye in increments and clinging to the goodness of these steadily shortening days.

** Plotting Along
AKA Same Old Workhorse Mode

I’ve also been waiting to send this newsletter because I wanted to tell you something like “I’ve finished the revisions of To Stay Forever and Agent Dan loves it!” But I can’t. I can tell you that when I sent him an outline of my proposed revisions back in June, he liked the complete restructuring I did but he still wanted me to work on a few more things. I was (am!) so itchy to put my new outline to use and see the next draft take its new shape– but Agent Dan was right. And I want this book to be good. So, I dove back into research mode to find historically plausible ways to implement some of his suggestions (yep, I read those incredibly dry books pictured above so you don’t have to). I cut and combined scenes to speed up the pacing in the middle of the novel because even in outline form it felt slow, and it has not escaped my notice that some critiques of I Shall Be Near To You say the middle drags (why are middles so hard?). I read through and revised the outline
multiple times (pictured on the left are what I thought were all the July versions, and on the right are two additional drafts I found today buried in my laptop bag). Then I read The Nightingale and saw how Kristin Hannah relentlessly ramps up the tension and stakes in that novel and I went back through and revised my dang outline again. I had this dream that by the time the kid started Kindergarten (on August 10th!), I would have finished the outline and gotten it back from Agent Dan with his stamp of approval. But everything always takes longer than I think (does that happen to you?). When it comes to little black dogs, I’m glad about that. When it comes to outlines and novels, not so much. I can tell you that last week I sent the latest outline of revisions to Agent Dan (yes, it made me feel nauseous to hit send, but no, this time I didn’t break out in eczema) and now? More waiting to hear his reaction.

** I Shall Steal
(but I’m not a thief)

Last time I wrote, I told you my publisher Crown was offering the ebook version of I Shall Be Near to You for a steal of a price and I mentioned that sometimes a crazy sale like that could push a book onto the bestsellers list. Well, I’ve been waiting far too long to tell you: it worked! During the ebook sale, I Shall Be Near To You landed on the USA Today Bestsellers list and was a number 1 Kindle bestseller (for about a minute–but look at the company it got to keep!). So THANK YOU for your help in spreading the word about the sale and about I Shall Be Near To You and helping show my publisher that people really do like books about women like Rosetta. As a way of showing my gratitude, I have a secret to share with you because…

** I Love Secrets
(well, certain kinds, anyway)

I’ve added a secret “Subscribers Only” page to my website. I wanted a way to give you all some extra Warm Fuzzies for being part of my crew. What are Warm Fuzzies? These ones are in the form of my All Time Favorites book list (I’ll be shocked if you haven’t read at least one of them); a deleted scene from I Shall Be Near To You depicting the moment that cemented Rosetta and Jeremiah’s friendship; and an offer for a couple freebies that will show up in your actual mailbox. I hope you’ll check them out. And if there’s anything you’d love to see on this page, let me know and I’ll see if I can make it happen!

Before I close, I also wanted to share with you a post I wrote the San Francisco Book Review after attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference (right after I sent off my last newsletter) about the secret super power of books. It’s called “How a Book Can Create a Community” and in many ways, it’s about you. Thank you for being part of my community– it has been one of the most wonderful and surprising parts of becoming an author, and it’s why, if you hit reply to this email, your message will go straight to my inbox. I love hearing from you.

All my Best,

Fifth Newsletter: Summer Epistle (with seeds!)

I send out a monthly-ish newsletter (more like bi-monthly-ish). This is the the fifth one, sans photos that accompany it when it goes straight to your inbox (apparently copying them from the original newsletter is technologically beyond me). If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, sign up here!

The More Things Change… the more they stay the same (or, I am dogged by the same problem…)
Ten days after my last letter, two new baby goats were born to mama Tricksy. Aren’t they adorable? And not tooooo long after (OK, on June 3rd), I finished the second draft of To Stay Forever. Only 2 months behind (my) schedule. It feels good to have “finished” even though I also know there is still a lot of work to be done. To paraphrase fellow author Lois Leveen: if you know how many drafts you’ve done, the novel isn’t ready yet.

Sigh. The novel isn’t ready yet. But I knew it wouldn’t be. I’m trying something new for the third draft: Outlining! I’m usually a by-the-seat-of-my-pants, write-out-of-order kind of gal, but I did use a fairly detailed outline (based on this book) to get me unstuck early on. I can’t say I actually relied on that outline, but it was useful. So I’ve outlined what I actually *have* written (some of you may have seen pictures on Instagram and Facebook of the 3×5 card outline, laid out on the bed in our “friends’ roomy” as The Kid calls it). I’ve never done this before (the more things change…). But as I’ve been working on and with the outline, I’ve had some realizations (the more things stay the same…). After I Shall Be Near To You, I vowed I would never use flashbacks again because they were so tricky to organize. I mostly
stayed true to that vow. But this outline is highlighting how my frustrations with structuring continues to be a challenge. It wasn’t the flashbacks’ fault– curses! On the one hand, it was a relief to realize that this is not a new problem I’m struggling with. On the other hand: darn it!

On Inspiration: One plant, many flowers

Through one of my former penpals (hi Erin!), I recently learned about persona poet Susan J. Erickson, who wrote a poem from “real” Rosetta’s perspective. I’d never heard of persona poems before (and I took a poetry forms class as part of my MFA– wherein I learned that I really am not a poet), but I admire them and the variety of women they represent. I love the Rosetta poem. If you read it, you’ll see some of the lines that come from real Rosetta’s actual letters– lines that inspired me and found their way into I Shall Be Near To You too. I love how one source can provide so much inspiration. And I thoroughly enjoyed Erickson’s discussion of Emily Dickinson in this interview (where you can find links to her other persona poems). As much as I like that Lady Macbeth line I mentioned in an earlier newsletter (“screw your courage to the sticking point”), I think I adore Dickinson’s rejoinder “if your nerve, deny you– go above your nerve–” even more. I think of the women I like to write about as the kind who go above their nerve, which always helps me press onward when the writing gets tricky and the outline feels like a snarl.

Summer: I love it

The last two months, I’ve been enjoying two of my favorite summer-time things (in between watching baby goat antics, which is fast becoming my third favorite summer-time thing). Another thing that just never changes is how nothing spells summer to me like being in a creek or river (and yes, just like in I Shall Be Near To You, a creek plays a big role in To Stay Forever). My other favorite summer-time thing? Being outside at night in shorts and a tank top. Since May, I’ve spent many nights under the stars, listening to our resident owl hooting, and being a baby goat jungle gym while doing 1 AM feedings for one of our baby goats (because Mama Goat decided five babies were too many to feed). Sometimes I don’t bother turning on the barn lights, just so I can enjoy the starry sky even more. At that time of night, if I look in just the right direction, I can almost imagine what it might have looked like here 100 years ago.

And yes, that owl has found his way to the pages of the new novel. I just couldn’t help but include him.

An Invitation
If you’re on Goodreads or Twitter, I have two events coming up that I’d love to invite you to join.

The first is a chat about I Shall Be Near To You with the Book Addicts on Goodreads, this Sunday, 7/19 at 4 PM EST/1 PM PST. You’ll have to join the group to participate, but it’s painless, I promise! If you have a burning question and don’t want to join the Book Addicts, you can always use the “Ask the Author” feature on my Goodreads profile.

The second virtual event is the #HistoricalFix Twitterchat on Tues. 7/21, at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST. Co-hosted by yours truly, some of my favorite book bloggers, and featuring guest authors Sarah McCoy (The Mapmaker’s Children, The Baker’s Daughter) and Jennifer Laam (The Secret Daughter of the Tsar), this is your chance to discuss all things historical fiction. You can learn all about the details and how to participate here, but all you really need to know is it will be a blast (and there will be giveaways)!

A Giveaway: Or, speaking of flowers…
I have some to share!

Our hollyhocks have gone to seed. The Kid and I have collected SO MANY seeds. Too many to plant ourselves. We’d love to share some with you. I promise they’re easy– that’s the only kind of plant I grow! If you’d like some, just reply to this email (your email will go straight to my inbox) and let me know where to send them. They’re perfect to plant this Fall, and by the time they start blooming, hopefully To Stay Forever will be well on its way to being a book you can hold in your hands.

Here’s to planting seeds to enjoy next Spring and enjoying the long days and the warm nights of this Summer!

All my Best,

Fourth Newsletter: An Announcement

I send out a monthly-ish newsletter. This is the the fourth one, from May 2015, sans photos that accompany it when it goes straight to your inbox. If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, sign up here!

Mama Goat is Capacious! or, Waiting is rewarded!

I promised I’d send the next newsletter when I had an announcement, either about baby goats or the next novel draft. I had high hopes I’d beat Mama Goat on my end of the bargain, but alas, no. I also had hoped Mama Goat would deliver on her promise on Mother’s Day, but alas, she waited until the day after. But never mind that! The (human) Kid and I spent all afternoon sitting with Mama Goat while she labored, petting her, giving her compliments, and waiting. The wait was worth it.
It’s really hard to get a good picture of so many moving targets (because, wow, are they already bouncing around a lot), but here are Mama Goat’s five (5!!) baby girls, at almost exactly 24 hours old. I’m having a hard time getting much of anything done (uh oh) because they’re just so fun to watch. And it’s also fun to watch this other kid… petting a still-wet baby, and in the next picture, a day-old baby (“I’m holding my first baby!” he said), boinging along with the goaties as they test out their acrobatic abilities.

Inspiration: It comes from so many places

While we were waiting for Mama Goat’s babies, The Kid and I put to use some things we learned while reading Kate DiCamillo’s book Leroy Ninker Saddles Up last week. Oh my goodness, what a sweet, funny, adorable book! We both loved it. In it, Maybelline the horse “enjoys the heck out of a compliment” and “is the kind of horse who gets lonesome quick.” We tried to make sure Mama Goat wasn’t lonely during her hours of labor (we sat with her from 2:30 PM until 9 PM, until everyone was dry and fed), and we complimented the heck out of her. She rewarded us with lots of licks (until the babies arrived and then she was really busy licking them) and lots of talking to us when we had to leave for water breaks from the hose.

Last week, I also watched Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery-Caldecott Award acceptance speech for her book Flora & Ulysses, which we haven’t read yet but which I at least am really looking forward to. (The Kid is a teensy bit worried about the pants-eating and squirrel-sucking vacuum). What a lovely, inspiring tribute to the capaciousness of a mother and daughter’s love. I hope you’ll get the chance to watch the video (the goods start at almost 3 minutes), but be forewarned– it will make you laugh and tear up.

Mama Goat and her babies have been making us all feel more capacious– “lifted up by surprise and gratitude and joy,” as Kate DiCamillo says. I hope your Spring too is full of such wonder and openness.

Third Newsletter: Henpecked

I send out a monthly-ish newsletter. This is the the third one, sans photos that accompany it when it goes straight to your inbox. If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, sign up here!


In which 5 becomes 2

I thought I knew what it meant to be henpecked. But in the span of two days, the Kid and I learned the hard way that chickens don’t just peck bugs (and maybe the occasional lizard) to death. The first casualty was one of our 5 baby chicks. On their first day out of the nursery coop– a gorgeous, sunny day, too lovely to be locked in– our Little Red Hen took her babies to join the flock for dinner. Head rooster Richard The Interloper, (who conveniently migrated over from our neighbor’s after our first neighbor-rooster Henry, got eaten by a coyote), pecked one of the babies. I thought this was the usual “pecking order” stuff. But when Richard (The Wretch) pecked the poor chick again, I swooped in, amid mama hen’s clucking, and whisked the baby away to the coop. No more of that! Unfortunately, when I put the chick back in the coop, I noticed blood on my hand. Upon closer inspection, the chick had a small puncture near its leg. It looked a bit odd, but it was small and the chick seemed mostly OK, although a bit limpy and flustered. I made sure it nestled under mama hen and hoped that come morning things would look better. Alas, in the morning, the chick was dead. We were sad.

The very next morning a mouse that made the ill-timed decision to come out of hiding as the kid and I fed the Little Red Hen and her four remaining chicks. Mama hen attacked the mouse, even as it scurried about trying to escape. I am probably not a very good chicken farmer because I couldn’t turn my back. By the time I managed to get the poor mouse out of the coop (in the feed scoop), it was bleeding from its eye. I explained to the Kid that even though it was alive, things did not look good. We found what we hoped was a safe, peaceful spot. When we checked later, the mouse was gone.

(Since then we’ve lost two more chicks– both of whom drowned in the goats’ water trough, that blurry black thing in the picture above. Two more sad days that a chicken enclosure might have prevented.)

My Caveat to Goal Setting
Sometimes goals are elusive

Last month, I shared my goal of having a revised draft of the new novel (I call it “Josie”, after the main character, but it’s working title is actually To Stay Forever) by April. There’s my “workstation” above. Oh, and that’s the Kid tackling a Lego project at the top of the screen there. We build (with varying degrees of success) at the same time, sometimes.

Anyway, April 1st is still the goal and I’m making headway, but…. Well, good news first! I was surprised by how much I liked the first half of the book when I read it in early February (I confess, it’s been hard letting go of Rosetta–she was so easy to love!– and allowing myself to fall for Josie). The bad news is right now April seems ridiculously optimistic– I’ve still got several new scenes to write and 150 more pages to rework and somehow it’s already already mid-March! Sometimes finishing this novel (any novel!) seems so overwhelming. Lately I find myself walking a tightrope between holding myself accountable and allowing myself slack.

Which, combined with a question Rachel (hi Rachel!) asked after my last missive, made me think maybe I ought to say something about how I screw my courage to the sticking point (to quote Lady Macbeth) on the days when I feel daunted. Since agonizing over my first never-to-be-seen-in-public attempt at a novel (which my very tactful father [hi Dad!] called “workmanlike”), I’ve adopted a mantra, thanks to some wise words from my college roommate and artist Michelle (hi Michelle!) who melds gorgeous, melancholy photos with poems: The important thing about art is the doing of it.

Just the act of creating– even if it’s terrible, even if it doesn’t seem remotely like art– is progress. I knew that first novel wasn’t good enough; as Ira Glass puts it here (or in this cool video representation here), there was a gap between my taste and my skill. But writing it was still important. It proved to me that I could write something novel length. It taught me what my process looks like so I don’t get quite as dismayed now when I hit the middle of a project and suddenly I’m convinced the story has turned into a terrible, muddled mess (I really wish it didn’t, but it happens every time).

Lately my mantra has a corollary, thanks to the wise words of my friend Andrea (hi Andrea!). She was one of the very first people to read scenes from I Shall Be Near To You (she also recently told me she likes Josie better than Rosetta– can you believe that?!) and her first story collection How To Pose For Hustler was just released the Tuesday before last. And she has two young children. The corollary? Lower the bar.

This means not henpecking myself when life intrudes (birthday parties and preschool board meetings and book events and a cold that won’t quit). It means not berating myself if I don’t hit my daily word count goal (500-1000 words– these days I like having a window). It means just writing one sentence. Or working for ten minutes (an idea I stole from Aimee Bender– it’s about 8 minutes into this interview, scroll down to #49). Or trying not to worry too much if a scene isn’t right yet because I can always fix it in the next draft (or try again in the one after that). Even if all I do is write one sentence, I feel better. Less disappointed in myself for not living up to my own expectations. And it’s a great way to trick myself, because many times, one sentence turns into two, turns into three… The trick is making it seem easy. Who couldn’t write just one sentence?

As for those other goals I told you about last time? Well… There was a camera/operator malfunction with the first roll of film from the 100 year old camera. Time to try, try again. As for the chicken enclosure, a site has been selected and approved by our neighbors and landlady alike. Time to break out the post pounder. But I did manage to build a goat feeder, which wasn’t even on my list! Better add it and promptly cross it off!

Is She Kidding?
It’s hard to wait (for baby goats)!

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of someone else who’s been doing a lot of work. Mama Goat is looking very pregnant these days, but she’s only just over halfway to her May 12 due date. Poor thing. On the right there is her 3 year old daughter Tricksy. She’s due to have her first kids June 1, but she’s still looking so svelte, I’m starting to wonder…

It’s hard to wait, but to give myself a little more time– to be a little less peckish with myself about this “monthly-isn” newsletter– I’ve decided to write you next when I have an announcement– a new draft or new baby goats, whichever comes first. Maybe that explains why this newsletter got so long– it might be awhile til next time (but I hope not)!

Until then,