Sometimes news comes in the shape of a book

Blue and Guitar for blog

This is what you would have seen had you driven by my house on March 7 this year. What is it? Well, Blue Riley, obviously, and her guitar. You see the resemblance, right? Okay, so maybe it looks like any number of snow people, but when my kids made it they knew no other snow person in the whole world would possibly be standing in our yard. Not with that guitar. Why March 7? Hang on, I’ll get back to that.

My daughter loves Blue’s story. She’s read it more than once. When I write, I try to keep my audience in mind. This is the first time that my audience has consisted of either of my children. It’s been…spectacular. We’ve had so many conversation around Blue and the other characters, and who I need to write more about, and what happened before or after or between the scenes. To be the mother of a passionate reader is wonderful. To be the mother of a passionate reader AND the writer of a book said reader loves is indescribable.

So, March 6–the day before Blue and her guitar showed up in our yard. There was a lot of snow outside. It was that kind of winter–remember? We were coming in from errands–me, son, daughter, daughter’s friend–and I had bags in my hand, and then my phone rang. Not my house phone, which rings nonstop with robocalls. My cheap little cell phone, which only my husband ever calls. Only it wasn’t my husband, which I knew because his ring is a whistle and this was not. I looked at the number, realized it was Agent Alice, and, with my usual level of grace and charm, said “oh crap.”

Which, I admit, is an odd response to something that I knew would be good news. I knew Alice would only call with good news. I knew that one of the editors that had been reading Blue’s story had been keeping Alice posted on her progress with it. But…let me tell you a little secret about myself: I don’t handle surprises well. Even good surprises. Some personality quirks are endearing. Some are…quirky.

I answered. Alice cheerfully said she had good news. I…remember me, the one who’s bad with surprises? I stalled. I said the first thing that popped into my head. “One a scale of one to ten, what level of good news is it?” (Can you tell I’ve spent a lot of time around medical people?)

That slowed things down a bit as Alice pondered the question (and likely wondered why she’d taken me on as a client). I had enough time to drop the bags and hide away in the bedroom. Keep in mind, though, that my kids know all about things like submissions and editors and what it means when Mom’s agent calls unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon, so they were waiting, waiting, waiting.

Do you see where all this is going? Do I need to continue?

Yes, dear ones, it was an offer from an editor for Blue’s story. Want the facts? Try this: “Jennifer Mason-Black’s debut DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD, in which a teenage girl meets a devil at her town crossroads and exchanges her voice for a pair of magical boots and six months to save her runaway sister’s soul, to Anne Heltzel at Amulet, for publication in spring 2016, by Alice Speilburg at Speilburg Literary Agency (world)

It’s been kind of a crazy spring. Between festival and editing and kids and my husband’s intense travel schedule, I’ve been dropping more balls than I’ve been catching. But the bottom line is that Blue and her guitar stepped out of my house and into the snow back in March, and sometime next spring they may well be arriving somewhere near you.

June 14, 2015

Hello.

I am coming to the end of the tunnel, and it looks like there may be sunshine out there. It’s a little blinding and I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with myself in the daylight, but I’m looking forward to it.

What have I been doing? Things. Stuff. You know.

Okay, bad answer. I ran a small festival to raise scholarship money for a nature immersion program for children. Yes, me, Cosmic Hermit, in charge of an event full of people. Folks came. Workshops happened. Raffles were held. And, in a spring marked by by drought, tremendous downpours occurred. An ideal blessing on an outdoor festival, don’t you think?

So there was that. It was certainly a major piece of this spring, which shall be known for all of eternity as The Spring In Which Everything In Life Came Due All At Once. Yes, EVERYTHING. When I say I’m not sure what I’ll do with myself next, I mean it. I find myself holding books and wondering how to read them from beginning to end. In fact, I realized a few months ago that I was doing a terrible job of stopping to have fun occasionally. In an attempt to rectify that, yesterday I went to a movie. In a movie theater. At night. And then I came out and remembered that I’d parked a nondescript, new-to-me car in a large crowded parking lot in a rush. I did eventually find it, but it was questionable for a bit.

(Incidentally, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road and was totally blown away.)

Anyway, things. There have been things. (Including one more, which I promise to tell you about soon.) I moved from a winter of perching on ladders and fighting with ice to a spring of no time no time no time. With any luck, this summer will be a chance to breathe, to pick berries and make jam, to reacquaint myself with trails I’ve been ignoring. Perhaps even to see another movie. We’ve almost reached the summer solstice, and I’ve yet to truly enjoy the light.

April 25, 2015

So busy.

So, so busy.

From now until the beginning of June I’m managing three projects–all important, all demanding, all positive. They’re curtailing my ability to do all sorts of things, including checking in here. I miss it!

For now, let me leave you with a brief update of the world outside my window. Yes, we did have brief snow showers the other day (it is late April, is it not?), and yes, it has been in the thirties multiple nights this week, but…there are crocus blooming in the lawn, and daffodils in the sunny spot by the garage, and mating wood frogs in the pool we keep for them, and peepers at night.

Winter, you have overstayed your welcome. Whether you accept it or not, we are leaving you behind and continuing on. There will be bird nests, and asparagus, and leaves again. Soon. We’ll welcome you back before long, I promise.

March 26, 2015

The timekeeping part of my brain has decided to skip 2015 completely. Rather than writing 2015, or even lagging behind with 2014, I find myself writing checks or dating blog posts with 2016. No, don’t check, I already corrected the date on this one.

Time does move fast, so I’d prefer not to skip whole years at this point. With teenage children, missing a year means a greater loss than I would like to imagine. As it is, the distance to adulthood, which seemed unfathomable when they were babies, is suddenly oh so near.

Spring is the birthday season for us. Two of us in March, ushering in the return of fifty degree days and mud. Two of us in May, waking to birdsong and lilacs blooming. This week it doesn’t seem possible that the snow will finally go, but it is retreating, in skips and jumps. The roof is almost clear. The walkways show bare ground. The river of shells under the bird feeder is now resting on grass, the snow sooty to either side. It’s time to take the feeder in, before the bears come roaming, but I hate to leave the faithful chickadees looking, looking in the tree.

I’ve stalled on writing. Actually, it’s less a stall than it is a conscious choice to take a little time off. April and May have become the confluence of three large projects, one writing, two life, and I’ve decided to enter them with a clear head. I’ve been reading instead, a little of everything. I’m not talented at taking pleasure in things. Reading for pure enjoyment has fallen by the wayside a bit in recent years. Finding my way back to it seems as valid a choice as writing at this moment.

That means lots of time at the library. I’m a glutton when it comes to library books, taking out far more than I’ll ever finish. Some of them I never even start, just keep for a few days, a week, before returning them. Many I read a chapter, four, five, and stop. Good books, for the most part, just not the flavor I’m looking for at that moment. That’s why I don’t do reviews, or try to keep track of things on Goodreads. If I don’t finish a book I’ve gone so far as to bring home, it’s almost never a comment on the quality of the writing. It’s just me navigating the constraints of time and my own needs as a reader.

At some point, the homeschooling will end. When it does, things will change. There will be, I imagine, more time for reading everything. There will be less (no?) algebra, and no dissecting of flowers at the kitchen table, and no discussion of how to build 3D printers. There will be just my own work to edit, my own library books to return. It will be a change of seasons quite unlike any I’ve been through.

For now, I’ll try to remain planted in the current year. I’ll read my bits and pieces of books, and savor the ones I follow through to the end. I’ll take the bird feeder down, say goodbye to the snow. And though I’ll look forward to June and the end of the rush, I’ll remember to enjoy spring while it is here.

No bad news

It is March, and it is cold. I have no dry socks at the moment, and the heat is gone from my tea. The snow piles around the house are tall enough that I can stand on them and pat the roof as I work on the ice in the gutters.

The only proper response is to shed the socks, reheat the tea, and listen to this song, inserting “snow and cold” in the place of “bad news.”

Spring is gathering her energy. It won’t be long now. Dream of the wild, of foxes barking outside of open windows, of bears sniffing the air, their stomachs rumbling.

Not long at all.

A farewell to Phoenix

phoenix-200

Remember this cover? I love it. I actually love it so much that even though my original idea was something grittier–an old gull feather, gap-toothed and roughened, turning to flame–and even though the font suggested something other than a story about three kids living oh-so-briefly on the street together, I gave an enthusiastic yes as soon as I saw it. I have it framed and hanging over my desk, courtesy of my brother.

Phoenix was an experiment of a story. It was also an experiment in publishing for me. The number of markets for novelettes is…small. I tried Giganotosaurus and got a nice rejection with a try again note. (I did, because that was the year of two novelettes. Luckily The King’s Huntsman found a home there a few months later.) I sat around for a while, wondering what to do with it. Well, to be honest, it was less thinking and more putting it in the file of things that I don’t what to do with, because that’s how it goes sometimes.

I considered self-publishing it. (That’s where my cover idea came in.) I read up on it. I talked it over with Dear Spouse. I thought about it more. In my heart, I knew the answer. I was chicken. At that moment, it was easier to think about burying the story than it was to think about putting it into the world on my own.

Then Musa came along. It was new, it was e-book only, it was open to all sorts of stories, at all sorts of lengths. Their contract was available to read online, and it was easy to understand, and they provided covers and formatting and editing and split story profits 50/50. Given my status as chicken, and my dearth of options, I decided to submit it there.

I never thought of it as a young adult story, but it ended up in the hands of the YA editor at that time, and she provided me with a very persuasive argument for why it was. She agreed to a few amendments to the contract, I signed it, and Phoenix was birthed as an e-book. A very short one.

It’s a gamble working with brand new publishers. Don’t ever assume it isn’t. I submitted Phoenix because it was a novelette, the equivalent of a few days work for me. I signed the contract because I asked them to remove the clause that gave them right of first refusal on any related stories. See, Phoenix is kin to Wren and The Lost. Secret kin, kind of like the royal child raised far from the castle to avoid the violent intrigue within. I was happy to gamble with a novelette, but not with one of my novels.

The contract was for three years, and would have ended this May. Things have sped up. Musa closes on February 28. It happens, to many many presses of all kinds. When I signed my contract, I did so knowing that the odds were against them.

The odds were against Phoenix too. My sales goals were low. I was pleased to exceed them. I had a very small, very manageable experience of marketing an e-book. I learned a little about how to do that while working with my personality, which is not of the “BUY NOW, BUY BUY BUY” variety. I had an e-book with a beautiful design, and it taught me gratitude to the people who think about how a story is presented, who make an art of it.

It’s been good. And now it’s just about over. Phoenix is still available through all the various online vendors through the 28th. It’s on sale at Musa, 80% off, which I think brings it down to $0.40? After Saturday, the rights return to me. The cover returns to pixels. The story settles back into my files, resting among its Aware brethren. I don’t think it will stay there forever, but it will for now. I hope to someday have an Aware story collection, and Phoenix would certainly be part of it.

But for now, a pause. A passing.

Remember: The thing about stories is that they’ve got to have hope.

A winter’s tale

It’s the time of year when everything feels static. The snow, when it falls, merely adds to snow already there. It’s no longer the miracle of newness that it was earlier in winter. The birds gone for the cold months will not be back for a while, the birds who stayed have settled into their cold weather routine. The roads are bounded by snowbanks that look like they will take years to melt. So too the drifts around the house, and the ice on the pond.

It will change so quickly, though. The sun already reaches the tips of the pines at midday. The owls are nesting, and while most days we don’t see them, we hear them every night. At a friend’s barn, the goats are pregnant to point that it appears one good stretch by the kids they carry will pop them like balloons.

As my son pointed out to me today, every moment is the end of the world, because the world changes so constantly that what we know is always ending. By the same token, something else is always beginning.

It’s been just about exactly seven years since I started writing again. That first year, possibly longer, I lived in fear that what could start so abruptly could end the same way. Writing had to take precedence over everything, because I had to get the words down before they vanished again. Yes, that time was thrilling, but because I couldn’t trust it would last, I was driven to do only what could be accomplished quickly.

It’s only been in the last year that I’ve developed enough control to not hurry hurry hurry. Given the chance between reading with the kids or writing, I can make time for the reading without thinking the writing will be lost forever. Time with kids is finite, after all, while stories, whether written or not, have been proven to stick in my head. The ones that don’t? The reality is that they wouldn’t make it through the writing process anyway.

Late winter, early spring–they will always be hard for me. It’s how I’m wired. I’m old enough to know the pattern, to know what will change and what will not. But there is this thing that happens each year when the grasp of winter seems impossible. Just a flicker, the tickle of memory. Words swimming in a bowl, swirling, until I can make out the pattern, see what they say.

When the winter wouldn’t end, when I didn’t believe I would ever have anything to say, I sat down at my desk and began. I wrote. It was enough then. It is enough now. Because when the winter will not end, when more doors than not open into despair, there is this one thing: I wrote. I write. I always will.

Thoughts on snow and story

The snow is infinite.

That, of course, is not true, but it’s difficult to accept today. Take away the National Weather Service, take away named snowstorms and color-coded maps, take away televised groundhogs and computer models, and all that’s left is faith. We believe that winter ends because has before, but in the thick of things, when the snow on the ground reaches past knees, higher, higher, and the sky is gray more days than not, and the cold eats through everything, that certainty can dim.

Living in New England means believing though. Believing that snow and ice will reign, but not forever. That the strawberries that taste so sweet in June, will come again the following year. That the daffodils under the maple tree will arrive, stubborn, shrugging off even the late snows to suddenly bloom on that first perfect day. That, before winter has even given in, the sap will begin to run in the trees, and backyard firepits will fill with pots as the scent of cooking syrup rises.

Ask me today whether I believe that the snow will end, and I’ll say no. But my animal heart knows better. Even as I complain, despair a little, within me quickens a pulse that knows winter is a season, not a forever.

The Lost continues to be messy. So much structure to work with–old, new, unexpected. It gives me an unreachable itch between my shoulder blades, like trying to convert an epic poem to haiku. There are changes in voice–time does that–and new thoughts on how to manage some of the action. Things, so many of them.

I had to begin with new chapters. While I assumed I’d be writing something completely fresh, I found myself going back to the original notebook, the one no one but me has ever read. Things that didn’t work back then, work now. Things I didn’t know how to use correctly back then are suddenly easy to maneuver. Those new chapters written, it’s become a daily grind of evaluating scenes, considering character, splicing pieces together, always mindful of how I wrote then, how I write now. It’s not glamorous, and every day there comes a point when I think I was wrong to ever return to it.

Then, when I get up to go over algebra, or look at a dissected flower, or make dinner, I don’t want to be away from the story. When I wake up, and it’s snowing, and it’s dark enough that there’s really no reason that I have to be awake yet, and I turn over to fall back asleep, I can’t. I’m thinking about what might happen if I shift the action this way, or I’m savoring some scene still to come. Whether I want to be or not, I’m there.

It’s the animal heart of the story. Beyond all the mess, beyond the questioning and the technique and the frustration and the doubt, the doubt that gnaws like mice in the walls…beyond all of that is the faith in the story. The certainty that eventually it will become exactly what it was meant to be. That this between place that it exists in now is a season, not a forever.

February 2, 2015

It’s snowing here. More than a little. The view onto the deck suggests the snow is attempting to swallow the house, a sort of slow and steady boa constrictor approach. The question is whether it will succeed before spring weather arrives. I’m giving it fifty-fifty odds at the moment.

I’ve been on a writing tear, which means things like blogs move way down in life hierarchy. This is the time when my family has to ask me the same question repeatedly before it will sift down into my brain, when I have to remind myself of the date or the time of day, and feel startled to discover it is February, not high summer, like it is in The Lost. It’s when I check phone messages and have that little touch of disappointment that none of them have called, and I must remind myself that they don’t call because they exist only in my head.

In other words, pure magic.

So, I’m not here much. I’m on Twitter a bit because it provides the mental equivalent of getting up and walking around the room for a few minutes. I’m making one of two salads (roasted beet/arugula or kale/quinoa) and eating them while thinking of other places, other times. I’m working on yet another hat, this one for my daughter, dark brown to help her blend into the trees outdoors, and listening to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell read aloud by my husband while the kids and I knit. I’m walking up and down the road, thinking, thinking, thinking.

And the writing? Still a tremendous mess at this point. New pieces to write, old pieces to choose, tenses to rearrange. It’s not just the history of that world I’m rearranging, it’s my own as well. We all live in houses inside our heads, and much of mine has been gutted and rebuilt since I last worked on this story. For now, there are moments when it feels impossibly difficult, and others when it feels effortless. The only absolute is the need to keep going.

In Crossroads, I made a deliberate decision to avoid romance with a capital R. There were a handful of reasons for this, not the least of which was that Blue’s quest was about family, about art, about friendship, about the kinds of love that don’t turn up in Valentine’s cards. By comparison, The Lost is drenched in desire. It’s also part of a bigger arc, and every piece I place now requires thought about how it reverberates through the story as a whole. There are moments when I miss Blue’s open plains, her determination to continue forward, alone, until she’s reached her journey’s end.

That’s the thing, I suppose, about houses in our heads. New wings can be built, strangers become friends, the view from every window can be different. Open one door, I’m looking out from a freight train onto spring in Idaho. Open another, it’s summer in an old farmhouse, and everything is about to break, but for this moment it is quiet and home.

The snow is slowing a bit. My brain is not. Off to write again.

Building a story

The bare bones of the story.

My daughter found an ill or injured goldfinch beneath the bird feeder. We contacted a bird rehabilitator. We did what we could. The bird died.

That’s all a story is, at it’s most basic. Event, reaction, action–some jumble of the three. Even those where it seems nothing is happening, somewhere. somehow, there’s a shift, a window opening or closing, a hand tightening to hold back a memory and failing, succeeding.

Events. Reactions. Actions. Found a bird. Tried to tend. Bird died. In the strict sense, that is my story.

Only it’s not. It’s lacking a few things. Yes, it details a few choices that suggest one set of characters over another. We have a bird feeder. We stopped for the bird. We called someone else about the bird. Those decisions suggest at character, but the world is full of people who would try to rescue a bird. What would make this my story?

Shall we start with some setting? Something like this?

The January cold had returned. During the walk up the hill, through snow frozen into layers so brittle that no one could be heard over their crackle, the air had been pleasant. Now, as the dark began to settle in, it turned bitter. Black shells littered the ground beneath the bird feeder they’d hung a month ago, evidence of the crowds of birds and squirrels that came during the day.

My characters, Jennifer and Daughter and Bird, now have a landscape of sorts. I could add more details, their home, for example–yurt, cabin, McMansion, castle. By omitting that detail, I’m making assumptions that the reader will fill in a house in the woods, instead of a fourth floor apartment, or the remnants of a crashed spaceship.

We also now know that Bird will be found in the cold. Bitter cold, to be precise. Bird will not be a fledgling stranded on the ground while trying to figure out her wings.

What more should I add? Setting gives something, but not enough.

The children kept their winter things on and left to walk Dog almost immediately. Once upon a time, Dog would have dragged them up and down the hill and through the woods. Now she moved slowly, arthritis and age weighing down her every step. Each day, Jennifer whispered a little prayer to Dog, asking her to stay with them longer, to not leave so soon on the heels of the cats, the horses, but she knew the end would come before long.

A little something about the emotional landscape of the characters, to match the physical. Shall we continue?

Daughter returned almost immediately. Jennifer’s first thought was about Dog, but the words that tumbled from Daughter’s mouth had nothing to do with her. “There’s a bird under the feeder. I think it’s sick. It’s hiding in the stone wall right now.”

For a moment, Jennifer wanted nothing more than to say no. “It will be fine,” she would say, knowing that the dark was coming, and with it the weasels and the owls and the foxes. She didn’t want to invite Death into the house again, not with Daughter there.

But she put on Son’s boots and followed Daughter out into the cold.

In theory, the physical and emotional landscapes should be working at this point to provide some tension. In a story without an obvious villain, unless Death counts, there still must be tension, right? Without that, we have found a hurt bird, tried to tend, it died. Tension is the system of tendons and ligaments and muscle that make the story move, thereby moving us.

At first glance it looked as though the bird could be fine. A little cold, a little stunned, perhaps. There had been a hawk in the yard today. Had this little one had a close call? Would a good night’s sleep make everything better?

Then she saw the labored breathing, the way it sat fluffed up, alone in the fading light, all the others gone to roost. “Oh, little bird,” she said.

Are those questions necessary? Perhaps not. Perhaps those are the sort of things I write in and later cut, once I understand everything the character was thinking.

Again, the longing to walk away, to tell Daughter that it would be fine and let the night take care of it. As she shifted, the bird flew, and she all but clapped her hands. A short flight, away, and then back again, behind her, the sound of its wings so close she didn’t dare move.

“It’s between your feet, Mom.”

This isn’t a big story. This isn’t one where the Bird Ambulance will pull up, sirens tweeting, and Bird Heroes will jump out and push Jennifer and Daughter aside, telling them that everything will be okay. This is just a mother and child in the dark with a dying bird. It holds your attention only as long as the characters do.

“Oh, little bird,” Jennifer said again. She crouched, slowly, the bird cocking its head and watching her. Perhaps this story will have a happy ending, she thought. Perhaps this will be one of the ones that ends with opening a box and watching a bird fly off into the morning light.

It flew again, this time to the front step of the house, where it sat, hunched, its breathing obvious even from fifteen feet away. No, this bird would not live, but Jennifer would do what she could. “See if we have a small box,” she said to Daughter.

This story could very quickly become overburdened with detail. It is not a how-to manual for caring for injured wildlife. The readers have already been warned, in so many ways, that Bird will not survive. The payoff is in the characters, not in explanations of phone calls or spaces cleared of cats.

If we changed the players, made the bird an owl hit by a car, or a rare hummingbird washed north in a storm, or an albatross, if we made Jennifer and Daughter innocent of death, or indifferent to birds…all of those would set the story on a different track. We started out in the switchyard of possibility, but at this point, as character and action become linked, the ending becomes certain.

The bird died in the box Daughter had filled with an old turtleneck that no longer fit. They examined it, the tiny claws, the closed wings. “We gave it what we could,” Jennifer told Daughter. “A quiet warm place to die.”

Not that she could comfort herself with that fact. For all she knew, the bird had died of shock because she had handled it. No, the bird was dying even when it had flown, even when it sat between her feet and struggled to breathe. The bird had come to them to die, and she couldn’t help but wonder if even birds fear the thought of waiting alone for Death in the dark.

Anthropomorphizing. But minds crave stories, crave connections. And grieving children long for answers.

As they snuggled together that night, Daughter crying quietly, Jennifer tried to find the right pieces, the ones that could take away the sadness. All the sadness, all the goodbyes.

“I know it seems like a lot,” she said. “It is. My life is much longer than yours right now, and in it there have been terribly sad things. I know how that feels. There have also been amazing things, like you being here with me. And a whole lot of days that are just days, bits of happy and sad and nothing much, all rolled together. All those things, they help us figure out who we are. They help us know how strong we are, and how much we can love, and how brave we can be. We get to feel it all.”

And the words seemed like so little, but they were all she knew to say.

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