Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ghost of Christmas Past

I've spent a bit of time today trying to find a digital picture of the house we used to live in. I have a framed one on display to remind all of us how things used to be, but the scanner's not working, so I'm going to have to give you a brief description instead: It was a little, square, flat-roofed box of a rental--about 400 square feet. Twenty feet by twenty feet. And since I'm less than 2 inches shy of being six feet tall, I like to keep it in perspective by saying it was three-and-a-half of me this way by three-and-a-half of me that way. I also like to say that the bugs were just letting us live there. The windows were cracked (or BB gunned) and painted closed, the kitchen floor sagged over the dug-out basement, and the plaster walls and ceiling were peeling and had a recurring mold that I couldn't seem to bleach away. We fixed it up the best we could--repainting, re carpeting, putting up a little white picket fence--but as Mark says, it's not really possible to polish a turd. He's also the one who promised me that someday we'd look back on our years there and think of it as being our honeymoon cottage. (He's that kind of optimist.) And really, the first few years were all right. Well, except for the gang activity in the neighborhood, the domestic violence across the street, the burglary, the drug deals in the alley behind us, and the homeless people on our porch. We got two big dogs (to guard against the goings on in the neighborhood), and then we started a family. Now, as you might imagine, I've got lots of stories about living in this place. There's Dead Cat Bob and Fat Larry and...well, the list goes on and on. And for those of you who have read them, there's a lot of Sammy Keyes world created from that environment. "The Bush Man" and Hudson...they live "down the street". The Salvation Army? It's right around the corner. As is St. Mary's church and the mall and the police station... But really, I need to reign this in and talk about the reason I'm bringing this up in the first place, and that's Christmas. I love a Christmas tree. Everything about it -- the smell, the look, the lights, the ornaments--it's like a festive piece of outside in the comfort of inside. We did not have room for a regular tree in this house. With two big dogs, two small kids, and us, we barely had room for ourselves. So every year we'd store a bunch of our stuff under a collapsible table, put a table cloth that draped to the floor over it, and pop a little table-top tree on top of it. And every Christmas I would tell Mark, "This is the LAST Christmas I'm going to spend in this house!" 400 square feet felt like 200 on a good day, but around Christmas that shrank to about 100. But it takes some time to save up enough to buy your own house, and since neither of us had a job that paid a lot, we scrimped and saved and dreamt of "next Christmas". One year turned into two, turned into five, turned into ten, and meanwhile, I was getting up early in the morning before work to write a little on these stories about a girl named Sammy. I had a dream that someday I'd be a published novelist, and even though no agent or editor in New York seemed to share that dream with me, I wrote four complete Sammy Keyes books at a fold down desk, using the edge of the bed as a chair. Ten years in this house turned into twelve, and finally we'd saved enough money to start building our very own "dream house". Too bad for Mark, because shortly after we started the process of building our own house, I got my book deal with Knopf / Random House for the Sammy Keyes books. And right around the time we moved in, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief won the Edgar for Best Children's Mystery. So of course everyone thought we were now "rich" because of Sammy, not because we'd scrimped and saved and lived in cramped quarters for a dozen years. But anyway, back to the tree. We now get a full-sized tree. (An entertaining process in and of itself, as Mark likes the bushy pine and its pine-y smell, and I love a fir and how it allows you to dangle ornaments between the branch levels. You should see us in a tree lot battling it out.) Anyway, this year we found the most beautiful tree ever--not huge, just perfect for the space we put a tree--tall and not too broad. (It is a fir, but even Mark agrees that it's the most beautiful tree ever.) We spiraled white lights through it, and hung ornaments that are all music related, with "drums only" on one side (my concession to my drummer-boy husband, for bringing in a fir instead of a pine). But the point is, since we've moved I always think of Christmases in our little rental and how far we've come. And I know that I wouldn't appreciate the tree I have now, if I hadn't gone through several years of table-toppers. And no, I don't look back on the little place as being a honeymoon cottage. I still have nightmares about spiders. But I do see the value in having lived there. I recognize that from struggle comes appreciation. I also think that trying to forget about the past interferes with appreciating the present. I don't romanticize those dozen years, but I don't shove them from my mind either; I'm not glad I experienced them, but I do appreciate how they've help shape my outlook. I'm really, really glad for what I have.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Think Tank

I have some serious ground to cover! As if December isn't busy enough, our son had a birthday on Friday (and we gave him a surprise "retro" party, which was quite a trick to pull off), and I only today got my head into the fact that Christmas is less than a week away. But concerning this blog, I really need to celebrate the contributions of people who participated in the Exercise the Right to Read campaign, as this cycle comes to a close at the end of the calendar year, and I have some spotlighting to do! But I've also promised the Sammy fans following this blog that I'd present them with an idea this week, so for this entry, I'm going to focus on that. The people at Random House are looking at different ways to generate sort of a drum roll about Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher. After all, it's the 13th book in the series, and there are some pretty major developments in the overarching storyline. RH has some cool ideas, but I'd be interested in hearing what would appeal to you, or what you think might help spread the news that there's a new Sammy Keyes book coming out. Now, let me make really clear that "dumb" ideas can lead to good ideas, and believe me, I've had many dumb ideas...but you have to start somewhere, right? So if you think something's "dumb", maybe it'll spark an idea for something better--which means that the original idea wasn't really dumb at all, but a catalyst for something cool. Also keep in mind that ideas will only work if they are practical and affordable. If it's not both, it won't fly with my publisher. So to get the ball rolling, let me give you some of the ideas I've had: My awesome sister-in-law has given me a charm for every SK book that has come out. I have this amazing charm bracelet with a charm that symbolizes each title -- binoculars for Hotel Thief, a jack o' lantern for Skeleton get the idea. I've always thought that having a charm that went with each book would be very cool... But how would they get distributed? Packaging them with the book is not practical....mailing them to readers is not practical...distributing them at the POS (point of sale) could be...but the whole idea is a little fussy. and really, are charm bracelets even in style for teens? I don't think so. Which brings me to an adjustment on the idea. How about a leather band that you could add beads to? A bead for each book? Does the idea have any merit at all? What would YOU think was a cool thing to have / collect? Another idea: shoelaces. I've thought it would be so cool to give away Sammy Keyes shoelaces with the purchase of a book -- ones you could lace through your own high-tops ('cause, of course you've got high-tops, right?). It's more practical than a charm bracelet (because it's a one-time thing)...but I don't know if other people will think it's as fun as I do. And what would you want to see printed on the shoelaces? A string of all the titles? Or just "Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher"? (Seems too "commercial" to me.) "SK" repeating? (Don't say SK + CA, 'cause much as I love him, there's more to Sammy Keyes than Casey Acosta :-)) When it comes to practical and affordable, the Internet is king. So Random House has tossed around ideas about maybe having "Sammy" tweet, or blog, or...have some sort of Web presence which was more personal than the website. My reaction to this is that it might be more interesting to hear "tweeting" or on-line comments from Sammy's friends...Marissa and Holly and Dot and Billy and (especially) Casey. And of course we'd have to include Heather :-) Does that idea have appeal to you? Do you think people would follow? And anything that could be downloaded from the website...that would be practical and affordable...but what? Educators (and publishers) tend to think in terms of bookmarks and test-your-knowledge quizzes...but I'd like to know what YOU think would be a cool thing to find you could download from a website. Maybe you like the idea of a bookmark...maybe you've got an idea that's new and unique and, you know, more Sammy. So send me your brainstorms, your preferences, your "that's cool" and "that's lame". I want to hear what you think. I'm excited to invite you to be part of this process--from the comments some of you have posted, I know you're the right people to ask! If you don't want your comments / ideas to go public, you can always send them to me via the "Contact Us" button at the Exercise the Right to Read website ( So get on your idea skateboard and ride!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Pot of Gold

It's been sort of a dark week. Family matters (my mom's health), work load (two manuscripts landed! 700 pages of rewrite due when???) and the weather (dark, cold, rainy). Then suddenly today the skies cleared and a magnificent rainbow arched clear across the canyon.
I tend to get a little overly excited by things like rainbows and moon rises and deer grazing in our yard. And although I used to run for my camera, I've learned that I prefer to just enjoy the moment. Before I know it, the rainbow will fade and vanish, the moon will leave the horizon behind, and the deer will flick their tails and move on.
I no longer want to live the moment trying to capture the moment.
I just want to live the moment.
So soaking in the rainbow today (while Mark ran for his camera), I thought about the proverbial pot of gold. When I was a child, I believed in the pot of gold. It was probably a hope more than a belief. but still, I harbored enough of a hope that I chased after it a few times.
Today, I could actually see the end of the rainbow and it was very clear that there was no pot of any kind. There was simply a field, with a few cows. Not a leprechaun in sight.
I wondered at chasing for gold. How when you want it so badly, it just eludes you. The end of the rainbow keeps shifting, keeps changing, keeps disappearing.
And it occurred to me that the rainbow, in all its dazzling beauty, is the pot of gold. By chasing after something more you lose what's right in front of you.
So, reflecting on the bright and beautiful, I've decided that the colors of my rainbow for this week are:
  • The people who have been leaving me comments at previous postings at this blog. You guys are crazy and I love you! (And I will answer your Sammy questions at the entries where you posted them.)
  • The out-of-the-blue call from a screen writer who loves Swear to Howdy (my little overshadowed book that is so near and dear to my heart) and wants to write the screenplay for it.
  • A report from someone who has seen a preliminary screening (without music) of Flipped and says (breathlessly) that "it's brilliant".
  • A counter on the Internet that reports that there are "only" 277 days until the premier of Flipped.
  • The unexpected gift of a cut glass punchbowl that belonged to Mark's grandmother.
  • The friends who took the time and braved the storm to jingle bell rock the night away.
  • My family, whole and healthy and home.
Who needs a pot of gold?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Hard-Earned Finish

Sometimes, the best strategy is simply to step back for a moment while you change your expectations, then lower your head, put your new plan into effect, and just keep going… Hi guys! Mark here, filling in for Wendelin as she takes an extremely well-deserved recovery nap after today’s event. I will say this right now: That girl is a trooper! Yes, I’m extremely biased, and yes, we saw others out there today who faced challenges of their own. (One poor woman went down maybe 50 yards in front of us, somewhere around Mile 23. Total bonkage – likely glycogen depletion and/or dehydration. We stopped for a second but some kind spectators were taking care of her.) But still, Wendelin has my admiration for hanging in there until the end, under very trying circumstances. She got very little sleep last night, and woke with a migraine headache. Luckily we got a ride to the start from some friends (thanks, Ellen and Stuart!) so we avoided some of the usual standing around in the cold & dark. The start was delayed ½ hr, and the sun was up by the time we got going. We took it easy during the opening miles, but even so, Wendelin felt whipped by headache-induced nausea by Mile 6. A bad sign indeed. (When training for a marathon, anything under maybe 12 miles is considered a short run, and we had a couple of recent 20-milers under our belts, so this was unusual for her to feel this bad so early.) Her nausea never got better, and as we approached the halfway mark I lobbied for her to consider stopping at that point. No way. So we pushed on. She had to make a couple of pit stops, and we did some walking near the end. (Her legs were fine, but the act of running made her want to puke. Not the best condition to have during a 26 mile race, to say the least!) But we eventually crested the last big hill and made it down to the coast and that beautiful finish line. (The finish line is always beautiful, but today it was doubly so.) Then we finally had some good luck. We had originally planned to walk back to our motel from the finish, to cool down (maybe 2 miles). But clearly that wasn’t the best plan, so I stuck out my thumb and immediately this nice couple with their daughter stopped and gave us a lift. (The woman was a participant also, so she took mercy on us.) Wendelin was sitting next to the daughter, who looked like the perfect age to be a Sammy Keyes reader, so Wendelin asked her if she’d heard of SK, and it turns out she's a big fan. The family was happily surprised to learn they'd given the author a ride. Totally cool. The young lady’s name was Lucia, and we want to thank her and her parents again for rescuing fellow runners (and readers!) in need. So, that was a bright spot in our day. And at this moment Wendelin is tucked in and sound asleep, with her shiny finisher’s medal still around her neck. I’d say she’s definitely earned the right to wear it…