Fresh air, the farm, and family

My kids and I packed up our favorite books and some clothes, and flew to North Carolina this morning to visit my brother. He owns a goat farm, and my mother is wintering with him this year in a cozy little house on his property.

There is always something going on at the farm. Eight baby goats were born earlier this week, and they each need milk, love, and attention. And truth be told, they nearly baaa out for snuggling. But maybe I’m projecting. Mama goats need hay, chickens need feed, cats need food, and goat cheese needs to be readied for the Saturday market.

But it was as I sat at the edge of the lake watching my kids skip rocks and float bark boats, did I realize how much I needed this time. To clear my mind of all competing priorities and just sit. Sit and watch the water ripple as each new rock “kerplunks” (my son invented a new verb). Listen to the ducks whose quacks sound like laughs. And stretching out a chat at the dinner table, enjoying dessert made from these goats’ milk and my brother’s own skilled hands.

What a gift to experience this beautiful and serene place where activity happens all around you, but it is somehow less frantic, less intense, and less serious than my regular world. I vow to make the most of my days here, so I can bring a little back with me into my daily life. I hope to keep the farm in my heart as I meet my work and home commitments in a purposeful way. 

Who knew a farm could hold such magic?

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Our busy, topsy turvy year is coming to a close. There is still time to reflect on the year behind us – the things I am proud of, the things I learned, and the things I have yet to accomplish. As the new year begins, I will lay out my goals and plans for 2017 – personally, professionally, with the blog, and with my writing. 

But for this week, this day, and this moment, I will open my heart to my myriad blessings. I will love my family with all my heart. And I will forgive myself for the places where I failed this year.

Best wishes to all of you during this joyous holiday season. Whatever your situation, I hope you can find some joy and peace. 

More to come in the new year!

The Benefits of Critique

Last weekend I drove 2-1/2 hours to participate in a Agent/Editor Day with my New England SCBWI chapter. The day was focused on middle grade and young adult manuscripts, and we had the opportunity to share the first chapter of our novel with 2 different agents or editors. We received feedback from two agents/editors, as well as the other participants.

I had participated in SCBWI conferences before, but this was my first Agent/Editor Day. I shared the first chapter of the novel I am currently working on, called Modern Girls. I was nervous going into the day, a range of thoughts swirling through my head from “What if they hate it?” to “I hope they like the characters as much as I do.”

I was pleasantly surprised, and thoroughly enjoyed the insight of the two editors, Monica Perez from Charlesbridge and Stephanie Kasheta from Merit Press. They each asked different questions and challenged me in different areas. I felt buoyed by the positive reinforcement on my character development, learned what areas hold more opportunity for exploration, and what questions I still need to ask myself about my characters and their relationships. In addition, I enjoyed listening to all of the other stories shared – fantasy, science fiction, adventure, mystery, and animal stories. Such creativity all in one room!

I do know the power of critique- it’s one of the reasons I joined a critique group many years ago and still benefit from their wisdom (besides the best part – they are wonderful women and writers!). My critique group keeps me focused, encourages me to keep going through the hard work of writing and revising, and are partners with me on my journey to become a better writer. Joanna and Anne are invaluable to me, and I hope I am able to provide them with an ounce of the honest and beneficial feedback they give me every month.

What I learned last weekend was that we must always be searching for how to write more concisely, look at our characters a different way, and better express those ideas in our heads. We must steel ourselves to truly hear the feedback, digest it, and decide how (or not) to incorporate it into our work.

My critique partner Joanna introduced us to Lisa Crohn’s Story Genius, and I applied what I learned from it to completely rewrite the first chapter of my novel. It is that rewrite that I took to my critique group, and that rewrite that I took to the Agent/Editor Day. Being open to the feedback, whether it be from trusted critique partners, craft books, or industry strangers, will hopefully help me to write my best novel yet.

Renewing in the New Year

Happy 2016 everyone! We are now halfway into January. Whether you have made resolutions, decided on a word to characterize your year, or skipped it all and are just trying to regroup from the holidays, each new year gives us reason to pause. 

2015 was a challenging year for me both personally and professionally. So my approach to 2016 will need a little extra effort to get things back on track. And I will need to give myself the time required for positive change to happen.

So this year, I’ve decided to combine the fresh start of a new year with the renewal that comes with Spring. I will take everything I have – a strong body and mind, wonderful supportive friends, and the unconditional love of my family – and build on that. I will need to add a good dose of patience and a sprinkling of hope.

By combining the new year and Spring, I give myself permission to meet my goals slowly and deliberately. I allow myself to take a breath sometimes while still keeping my eyes on where I am trying to go.

I’ll let you know where this approach takes me once we reach Spring. I hope each of you have a positive year planned, full of growth and moving towards where you want to be. Whether you want to improve your writing, read more books, have more adventures, or be a better friend, I hope the next few months are fruitful.

Summer Camp Memories

My kids have been in morning camp for several weeks now, and have several more weeks ahead of them. They go to a wonderful camp held at one of our local elementary schools, which combines learning something new with general outdoor fun and arts/crafts.

I have fond memories of my own camp experiences. I had a pretty diverse experience – I attended a playground camp, Girl Scout camp, and a intense camp at the local college where I took courses in programming and mime. And I loved every minute of each of them.

I think summer camps should be somewhere that provides a change of pace, and an opportunity to look at your world a little differently. There isn’t the daily pressure of homework or other lessons – just a relaxed environment where you can try some new things, have fun, and perhaps learn something about yourself. You might find you really like the arts, or that tennis really isn’t your thing. It’s all about self-exploration.

So how do we capture that in our adult lives? We can certainly try new things – a new skill, a new project, a new sport. We can also try to look at things with a new perspective. In the spirit of summer, I am trying to take a more relaxed approach to the summer. There may be some changes and transitions to my life in the fall (more to come on that later), so this may be my last fully engaged summer with my kids. I am taking it one day at a time versus making structured plans for each day. As long as we have a good mix of fun, quiet play, reading, and time together, I consider the day a success.

So for this summer, I am narrowing the focus down to the bare essentials. Time with my family, time with some books, time to work on my novel, and time for the outdoors.

I hope your summer is going as you have planned (or not planned, as the case may be!)

Children’s Book Authors are Rockstars (at least I think so)

My children’s school district sponsors author visits a few times a year. This week, they were visited by children’s book author/illustrator Brian Lies. My son enjoyed the visit so much, he insisted we stop by our local bookstore to see if they had any of his books.

As we parked in front of the bookstore, I looked across the street and I saw this:

Bat Car

It’s Brian Lies’ bat car for his current book tour (which, by the way, is an AWESOME idea). He had stopped by our bookstore to sign some more copies of his books. So not only did we get a Brian Lies book, we got one with a personalized inscription for Aidan.

Book Inscription

We were able to talk to the author/illustrator, and he was very nice, warm, and easy for children to talk to. I even got to talk to him a little about SCBWI and children’s book writing. Aidan and I were so amped leaving the store, it was all we could talk about all evening.

Brian Lies’ latest book, Bats in the Band, is about bats who love being musicians. A few of them fancy themselves rock stars, and I began to think about my reaction to this writer. It is the same reaction I have to other published children’s books writers- awe, respect, and admiration. Perhaps after many years of working on my own craft, I have a personal appreciation for the hard work and persistence required to actually get published. Add in the impact that children’s book author’s can have on children’s lives, and I can completely understand the adrenaline rush in meeting them.

I have been fortunate to meet many children’s book writers, and several of them have inscribed books for my children. I hope this book has a special place in their collection along with signed books from Jane Yolen, Mo Willems, and Julie Andrews.

Best wishes to Brian Lies on a successful book tour – and that he gets to enjoy his rockstar status a little (even if he doesn’t know he is one).

 

Spring Has Finally Sprung

Here in the Northeast, we finally had a weekend worthy of being called Spring. The temperature was in the mid-70’s, it was mostly sunny, and the flowering trees decided it was time to bloom.

Magnolias

We spent as much time outside as possible- riding bikes and scooters, climbing trees, and even sneaking in a book while laying on a blanket. A visit from Grandma and Pa made it even more special.

Bike Riding

These are the weekends that lift my spirits and inspire me. Each spring I realize how much the winter weather has weighed on my mood, and how much I enjoy the fresh air and the warm sun on my skin.

Each Spring, nature begins again. Maybe last year the daffodils didn’t put on their best show, but this year could be different. Each Spring the Earth is given a new start and a fresh approach. So how can we not be inspired? This may be the 5th time we’ve worked on that first chapter. We may feel like there is no way to get that picture book right. But we must begin again. Maybe we need to let a story hibernate for a while, but then it’s time to start again with fresh new eyes and bold determination. And maybe, just maybe, this will be the revision that makes that chapter feel just right.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

The Value of Honest Feedback

I’m a big believer in honesty. Not painful, hurtful honesty, but the idea that being upfront with people (especially friends and family) avoids much drama, misunderstandings, and unnecessary conflict.

However, for honesty to work fully we must be open to feedback. Sure, honest feedback might still sting a little, or initially rub us the wrong way, but if we can ultimately incorporate the information it can be a gift.

Take the writer’s submission process for example. Joanna and I were discussing how we hope for open feedback when we submit our work to agents and editors. Even a little open feedback instead of a standard rejection would help us to know which direction to go. Such as:

“Not really the kind of book I represent.” – Try another agent.

“Strong concept, but the prose needs tightening.” – Now you know where to focus your revisions.

“Good idea, but I wasn’t hooked at the beginning.” – Time to rework the first few chapters.

“I like the characters, but the stakes for them aren’t high enough to keep me interested.” – More work needed on the plot and character development.

Knowing how to proceed in this highly subjective art of writing is invaluable. And why I need my critique group so much. We encourage each other, make suggestions, and give balanced feedback that helps us each be better writers.

So if someone asks you for your honest feedback, consider giving it. It could make all the difference.

Happy Easter and Welcome to Spring!

I find Easter and the beginning of Spring as a time of reflection, much more so than on New Year’s. In January, it is still cold and gray (and often we are knee-deep in snow), so it is hard to see the potential for the new year. For those of you who celebrate Easter (as I do), it is symbolic of rebirth, renewal, and joy. And if you’re lucky, the sun is peeking out more often and the temperates are gradually rising.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

There is promise in each day – a promise that what has incubated all winter under the snow and within ourselves is ready to blossom. You just need to look – are you ready to be brave? Take on that new challenge? Try something new? Take a bold step towards a new direction?

Best wishes for a restorative and peaceful Easter and Spring to all of you. Get out there and shake things up. What are you waiting for?

Joint Book Review: The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordecai Gerstein

CM_between_towersToday we’re trying something different–a joint book review of The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. This Caldecott Award winner follows the true story of Philippe Petit’s historic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers.

It’s 1974, and construction of the World Trade Center is nearing completion. Enter Philippe Petit, a street performer. To him, the gap between the two buildings would be the perfect place to walk a tightrope. With a beautiful progression of illustrations, including some fold out pages that enhance the height of the towers and of the wire, the story follows Philippe as he faces numerous challenges in attempting his goal.

Joanna: My five-year-old son Karsten frequently requests this book at bedtime, and it is a joy for me to read. Part of the appeal is my connection to New York City and the WTC Towers themselves. Growing up outside New York, they were an iconic part of my childhood. I’ve been up them only once–a few months prior to the 2001 attacks. This book is a wonderful commemoration to Petit’s feat as well as to the WTC tragedy and the spirit of New York. It’s also a great story about having a dream and making it come true against the odds.

Katie: Interestingly, my kids had different reactions to this book. They did not know anything about Philippe Petit, so as he planned his walk between the Twin Towers, the suspense kept building. They were both asking, “Does he make it?” There was a sigh of relief once he did. My four-year-old daughter was a little too afraid of him falling to enjoy the middle of the book, but my son was thrilled to find out how it turned out.

There is a documentary called Man On Wire about Petit’s extraordinary feat. Comprised of interviews with the people involved, including Petit, it’s quite interesting. Petit might come off as self-centered and perhaps a touch crazy, but what he accomplishes is nothing short of amazing. Not sure I’m ready to show it to my young son yet but I definitely will in the future. (Note: it received a rare 100% from Rotten Tomatoes!)

If you want to delve even deeper into Philippe Petit’s life and his accomplishments, a full length novel is available. In the current printing it is called Man on Wire, and before the documentary it was called To Reach the Clouds. Philippe Petit himself penned several books about his life as well.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a lesson plan from Scholastic. Or if you watch BookFlix (available through your public or school library), there is a nice read aloud of the book.