Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wendelin in Triptych

Hi, everyone – Mark here, subbing for Lady Wendelin. (Okay, when the boys were little we had a kid’s book about a knight and a dragon and a fair princess named Lady Wendolyn. It stuck. Kinda like the little boy named Patrick down the street, who our oldest called “Saint Patrick” for the longest time. Or our friend Mary, who the boys called “Mary-Mary”, from the nursery rhyme…)

I’m writing to provide a semi-external perspective on Wendelin’s writing process… and because I told her I had what might be an interesting blog topic, after I cobbled this pic together last night.

See, even though the 1st and 3rd frames look identical, they’re not - all three photos were taken in the order shown, a few minutes apart. And she had no idea I was photographing her, as she was working away late Friday night on the ‘SK and the Wayward Parents’. (She was in the dining room, and I was in the kitchen supposedly doing dishes. But I was watching her work - as I am wont to do - and something just caught my eye and I thought I’d take a few pics.) Then, when I looked at them last night, I was taken by the back-and-forth nature of the photos: She’d sit back and think. Then she’d write some. Then more thinking. Then more writing. Etc…

This struck me as a metaphor for the whole creative process. We’ve all heard ‘Writing is Rewriting’. And of course, ‘Writing is Hard Work’. (Both true.) But it also occurred to me that ‘Writing is Thinking’. (I suppose this is a big “DUH!” to most of you, but I’m known to make these very obvious discoveries, which everyone else already knows. Like, I’ll come in from the outside on a sunny day and announce, “Hey, you know the sky is really blue!”)

So, by ‘thinking’ I don’t necessarily mean the analytical kind, where you fall out of the creative flow, but more a mulling over – either what you’ve just written or are about to write - holding the words in your head like stones in your hand, rolling them around and around and trying to get them to fit together smoothly. And not being afraid to toss them back in the stream and fish out some new ones, if they’re not quite right.

Wendelin has talked about the concept of ‘do a chapter, do a chore’. Sometimes, if you’re stuck, it’s good to get away from the keyboard and go do some relatively mindless task for a while. But really, this may just be ‘thinking’ on another level, allowing your subconscious to get into the game.

But regardless, good writing doesn’t seem to be a linear task, at least not for those I know who do it. It’s more like a tennis match, whacking that ball back-and-forth, only you’re playing on both sides of the net.

So, look at the 1st and 3rd frames. That’s where the real writing is happening…

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I’ve just returned home from a week-long visit to Tennessee, where I did presentations at four middle schools and four elementary schools and one university.

I think.

Well, I’m sure about the number of universities.

I really like doing school visits—I like the kids, and the teachers and librarians do a fantastic job prepping the students for Author Day. It’s the traveling that kills me! I’ve shared tales from the road before, but I have a few more to add to my storybook of travel horrors. Or, more accurately, exhausting inconveniences. This time there was a semi-truck overturned on the interstate between Nashville and Knoxville. Add an hour to the two and a half hour trip. I kept reminding myself that I was inconvenienced, not dead, like the semi driver may very well have been. They were stacking the panels of the rig as we finally inched past. I don’t know what he’d been hauling, but the truck trailer seemed to be reduced to compact stacks of metal parts.

Needless to say, with two flights and a very long drive (through a time zone change, even) it was late night by the time I checked into the hotel.

But the next morning the travel was behind me and the fun began. Each school has a “host” who sees you through your day—or as this week shaped up, your half day with them. They pick you up at the hotel (a better guarantee that you will actually appear at the school and not get yourself lost in a rental car) and before long you’ve got your computer talking to their projection system and the kids are filing in, anxious to hear what you have to say.

Now, I have to hand it to the elementary schools—they get their students excited. The kids see me in the hall and whisper, Is that her? Or a brave one will be dispatched to ask, “Are you Miss Van Draanen?”

When I say yes, one of two things happens: They scamper off squealing, or they hesitate, then charge at me with a hug.

Who cares about a little travel delay when that’s the reception you get!

The middle schools usually come with a warning or apology from the host about the hour or the group. Depends on what sort of middle school it is. If the kids are 7th & 8th, they can be a little sleepy if it’s a morning assembly. Or a little chatty if it’s an afternoon assembly. Or a little, uh, distant. I mean, come on. It’s an author. How exciting can it be?

I love presenting to 7th / 8th – they may be my favorite group ‘cause they transform from sleepy and / or distant to engaged and laughing. My view is you just have to remember what it was like to be them. Jump around a little. Tell a story. Wake…them…up.

After my spastic presentation Monday morning, the 8th graders gave me a standing O. It started with the boys. The ones who’d sat at the back of the room. The ones who’d come in dragging. And then it spread forward and it about made me cry from happiness. There’s nothing like a spontaneous standing O from a bunch of eighth graders to set your mood for the whole week.

So the schools were great, but by the end of a week of three spastic presentations each day (well, I controlled myself a little at the university, so that one wasn’t as spastic) I was pretty exhausted and looking forward to getting home to my own bed.

The trip home started okay—my saintly host drove me the two and a half hours back to the airport, and fortunately there were no accidents or delays on the way. But when I checked in at the airport I learned that my flight was delayed because the original aircraft had been held up by bad weather conditions in San Francisco.

(SFO, you should just give it up. All over the country there are delays because of you  We're tired of it! Wake up! You've got fog! It's not going away! Let San Jose have your business, already!)

Anyway, that was the beginning of the end. The flight got me in too late to catch my connection home, because I was on different carriers for each leg of the trip and the carriers had different terminals which required me to go outside, then back through security. By the time I’d reached the second terminal my flight had already lifted off. The next flight out wasn’t until 8 AM, so I was stuck at 11 PM at a ticket counter where I was told that people often spent the time waiting in a little cordoned off area of plastic chairs as I wouldn’t be allowed to go to my gate until 4:30 AM.


I guess I could have gone back to the first carrier and asked them to put me up in a hotel room, but I didn’t want a stupid hotel room or to get up early and endure possible flight delays and more security screening and airport food. I wanted to go home and was willing to drive the four hours to get there.

Unfortunately, Hertz wanted over $300 for a rental car.

Fortunately, Avis only wanted $30.

So I got on the Avis shuttle and was transported to the Avis rental car lot where I got a car, a map, and a bottle of tea and hit the road.

Tennessee time, it was almost 6 AM by the time I hit the pillow.

Still. It was a great week. There’s just something about the kids that makes all the travel headaches worth it.

Thanks for checking in – see you next week!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Swinging Through Darkness

I hate to get information about my own books from Amazon.

Like, shouldn’t I be the first to know?

Or, at least, somewhere in the top ten?

I was actually at the Amazon site because I’d been given some good news—The Running Dream has been named one of Amazon’s Best Books for 2011 in the Young Adult category, so I was checking that out.

But then I happened upon the hardcover art for Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack, which—as you can see—is a bit of a stylistic departure from the rest of the series. I’d seen (and commented on) the initial sketches, but this was the first I’d seen the final art, and it caught me off guard. Partly because it looks collage-y instead of painted, and I wasn’t expecting that. My reaction was rooted in how the art fit with the rest of the series, coupled with a knee-jerk annoyance at seeing it for the first time on-line.

I tried to tell myself to let it go—that it was a done deal and there was nothing I could do about it.

And what is it I wanted to do, anyway?

I recognized that I was probably hurt more than anything, which I told myself was childish, but I kept staring at the Amazon page and the situation festered. I was feeling overlooked and undervalued and just…irritated.

My son came in and saw me brooding and asked what was wrong. So I told him. And his advice was that I should call the person in charge and talk about it. I told him it wouldn’t change anything, and that I would just come across as whiny and needy (and I don’t want to come across as whiny or needy!).

He persisted, though, and had made good headway in convincing me to call—to the point where I actually said I would--but just then FedEx drove up.

I like our regular FedEx driver. She’s friendly and competent and she’s been navigating our driveway for years without complaint. I can see her coming from my office window, so whenever I can, I go out and thank her i in person. And since my son had just convinced me to make a call I was feeling cowardly about, I took the FedEx truck as a welcome (albeit temporary) escape.

The FedEx lady handed over a box, and started chatting about having seen me on the news the previous week. She was her usual upbeat self and told me she had a grandson she reads to—he’s only two, but she love-love-loves to read to him—something he won’t be able to do for himself for a while, not, it turns out, because he’s two, but because he’s blind.


This was the first I’d heard of the grandson, but my heart immediately went out to her.

She was in grandma mode, though, and having none of my sympathy. She whipped out her iPhone and showed me a video of her grandson swinging, and while I watched him go back and forth she told me he’d been born with detached retinas and that he would likely never be able to see, but then went on to talk excitedly about how he’s started walking by holding his palms against the walls, and how he’s the sweetest dearest thing.

“He doesn’t know anything else,” she said, putting her phone away. “So he’s happy.” Then she teared up a little and said, “It’s been hard on my son, though,” and it came out that in his two short years of life her grandson has already been through four eye surgeries and there will have to be ongoing surgeries as he grows—something about scar tissue and pressure and headaches.

I said whatever positive things I could think to say to her (like how blessed the boy was to have her for a grandma), but when she was gone I just stood there feeling like an ass.

How many lessons do I need about not sweating the small stuff?

Haven’t I had plenty already?

Why do I need these refresher courses?

Maybe I didn't like the way things were handled, but good grief. So what? It’s art, not life and death.

And, more to the point, I was born with eyes that can see it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slap Me Silly!

Have I told you that the Sammy Keyes book I'm working on now is the "Heather" book?


How could I have kept that from you?

Maybe because I didn't know myself just how much of a Heather book it would be?

No, that's a cop out.

I knew.

But now that I'm in the middle of it?

Wow. Is this interesting?

I don't mean to imply that the book is written in the voice of Heather. What I mean is that she's in the main plot, not just a subplot, and in this book we're getting to the bottom of why she is the way she is.

As you  can imagine, this is taking a lot of digging.

But before you ever pierce your spade into the ground, there's the whole ordeal of finding "X-Marks-the-Spot."

In the case of Heather, it's been 15 books of figuring out where to start digging.

And now that I've started I'm reminded of digging a hole at the beach. Sand falls in, little crabs appear out of nowhere, you run into rocks and old bottle caps and baby shoes...then the sand gets darker and colder and slowly water starts seeping in.

I should maybe clarify that no, there's not actually something buried in this book--we've had enough of that with Dead Giveaway and Night of Skulls, right? The only thing buried in this case is what's inside Heather's head, and digging down to it has been fascinating.

And (confession time) during this week's writing (and digging), I came upon something that made me tear up.

Me? Tear up over Heather?

Slap me silly! Heather's a beast! And after everything she's put Sammy through? How could anyone (especially me!) tear up over Heather???

But it's true, I did. And although it was temporary, I do still have a long way to go before I quit digging. And if water's already seeping in?

Somebody send me a paddle!