Writing Time

Except for a lovely Easter brunch with Anne, Kevin, and Eric, and a routine checkup at the eye doctor, I’ve done little but write for two weeks. I always have difficulty starting a new book but once I get into it I become completely absorbed and don’t want to do anything else. Right now I’m at the point where I work all day and then lie in bed thinking about what else I want to say and how to say it. In the mornings, I make coffee, let Lucy out, and go straight to my office in my bathrobe, often putting in a couple of hours before I realize I’m hungry and have not yet had breakfast.

This week, my obsession coincided with the opening of baseball season, which presented a dilemma. I ended up watching most of the first two Mariners games, but with a notebook in hand so that I could scrawl thoughts during the muted commercials – and often during the Athletics’ turns at bat. When the games ended, I logged these new additions into the book, staying up too late in the process.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention what it is that I’m working so hard on. Sorry. I can never talk about a book while I’m writing it. It always feels fragile at this point, as if it will fall apart if I display the idea in public too soon.

My agent of many years, Emilie Jacobson, has retired. I thank her for the many years of representation, the thirty-five books she sold for me, and her staunch advocacy of my work. She has a great sense of humor, and I will miss the wry comments in her correspondence. Shelter Dogs is dedicated to her.

Thank you, Robert B. Parker

Yesterday I read Split Image by Robert B. Parker. I enjoyed the book but I also felt sad as I read because there will be no more novels from this talented writer. Robert B. Parker died recently. I have read all the Spencer books and the Jesse Stone books. I eagerly awaited each new Sunny Randall story. I was delighted when Parker began putting characters from one series into a different series; I felt as if I’d unexpectedly run into an old friend.

Reading a book by Parker is the equivalent of taking a college course in how to write great dialogue. I have long admired his craft, as well as his art. I also like that most (all?) of his books were dedicated to his wife, Joan. Having had a long and loving marriage myself, I appreciate it when I see a similar union.  As if all this weren’t enough to make me a fan, Robert Parker clearly loved dogs. Only a dog lover could write dog scenes the way he did. I never met the man, but I will surely miss his work.

My New Favorite Word

Larry Karp sent me an email in which he used the word oleaginous. I was not familiar with oleaginous, so I looked it up. In case you are as uninformed as I was, Google’s source defines oleaginous as, “Buttery: unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech.” What a great word! Larry had used it to describe a telemarketer, and I now have an instant mental image of this person. I also like the connection between ole and buttery. Who but a writer would casually drop oleaginous into a sentence? And who but another writer would get excited by that?

Two good friends have new books out this week. Congratulations to the above-mentioned Larry Karp, who is not an oleaginous person, on the April 1 release of The Ragtime Fool, the third in his fine ragtime trilogy. And congratulations to David Patenaude on the publication of his YA novel, Epitaph Road. 

Snoopy Moments

Kids sometimes ask me what inspires me to write. Usually I say it’s them. I’m inspired by readers who enjoy my books, and they make me want to keep writing. But there is another motivation, too. There are my Snoopy moments.

It’s a favorite Charlie Brown cartoon. In the first scene, Snoopy is sitting on the roof of his dog house, typing away. Then he’s flat on his back, kicking his feet in the air, clearly ecstatic. In the final scene, Snoopy says, “I love it when I write something that I know is good.”

I’ve had that feeling. For each book, I write and revise and write some more. Trying to draw out the ideas and the best words from my head onto the page is a slow and often difficult process. Every so often, I write a scene or some dialogue or a brief description that I know is exactly right. When this happens, I feel the same way Snoopy does. I don’t flop on the floor and kick my feet in the air, but I do nod my head and smile at the computer screen and sometimes even feel goosebumps on my arms.

Snoopy moments are the best part of writing, but they only happen when I’m seated at the keyboard working on a manuscript. Like most good things in life, Snoopy moments must be earned.

Missing the animals

My friend and fellow writer, Joni Sensel, posted a Facebook comment one day that said, “Airport. Too early. Missing the dogs.” Oh, boy, did I ever relate to that! The hardest part of travel for me (even worse than going through security) is leaving my animals. I have a wonderful pet-sitter who moves into my house and keeps the animals on their usual routine. She brings them toys, gives them treats, and tells them how beautiful they are. I am certain that when I’m away I miss the animals lots more than they miss me.

Tomorrow I’ll be at the airport, heading for a Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri. I am excited about going. I’ll see old friends, including Roland and Marie Smith, Vicki Grove, Mary Downing Hahn, and many others. I’ll talk to over 2,000 students and teachers, and sign hundreds of books. It will be a busy, happy, productive time and I am grateful to Central Missouri University for inviting me. Even so, I still look forward to coming home again – to being welcomed by a dog who is so overjoyed to see me that she races in circles around the dining room table, and to hearing the happy purrs as Molly hops on the bed beside me. Mr. Stray knows my car and hurries to sit by his bowl on my front porch when I return. Whether they missed me much or not, the animals are always glad to see me, and I am glad to see them.

Japanese Night of Fear

I am celebrating the sale of Japanese rights to Night of Fear. This is the first of my books to be published in Japanese. After reading the contract terms, I figured out that my royalty on each copy sold will be 78 yen. Of course, all royalties on the foreign editions of my books come to me in U.S. dollars, but I’m having a good time imagining those 78 yen.

Foreign sales are one of the best perks of being an author, because a book gets published but I don’t have to write it first. I have never been to Japan, and it is exciting for me to know that Japanese students, teachers, and librarians will be able to read my book in their own language.

It also pleases me to see a new life for this particular title, which was originally published in 1994. I have a special fondness for Night of Fear because the character of Grandma Ruth has Alzheimer’s disease. My father had Alzheimer’s, so I used personal experience and feelings as I wrote.

The Whole Truth

I had an inquiry from someone who was searching for the poem, “Lilacs in Summer,” which one of the characters in Runaway Twin plagiarizes. She couldn’t find the poem on the internet, and asked where she could get a copy. She can’t find “Lilacs in Summer” because it doesn’t exist. I made it up. I even Googled the title before I used it, to be sure there wasn’t a real poem with that title.

Another reader requested the street address of Aunt Ethel, from The Ghost’s Grave. She was planning a field trip to view all of the places mentioned in the story. I explained that Aunt Ethel and her house are fictional, as is the rest of the book.

While many readers feel as if a fictional story is true, those who read my nonfiction often question the facts. I have many letters from kids who read Small Steps asking if I really had polio. Those who read Five Pages a Day want to know if I really won a car.

Apparently my fiction is so realistic that it seems true, while my real life is too unusual to be believed. As a writer, I obviously can’t be trusted.

A Writer’s Pay Day

Kids sometimes ask me (usually to their teacher’s or parent’s chagrin) how much money I make. I respond by explaining how royalties work. They assume that if I wrote the book, I get all the money from the book’s sales so they are often outraged to learn that when they purchase a paperback book for $6.99, my share – a standard six percent royalty – is forty-two cents. I then explain that my agent gets fifteen percent of everything I earn, in this case, six cents. So that puts my share at thirty-six cents per book. I’m considered a business by the State of Washington so I pay a Business and Occupation Tax and, of course, I pay federal income tax, as well.

Why would anyone in their right mind work for such a pittance? Because I don’t sell only one book per year. And because my books continue to sell year after year so that I receive income from them long after I’ve finished writing them.

Yesterday I received a royalty check for $122 from The Dramatic Publishing Co. for a one-act play titled “Cemeteries Are a Grave Matter.” It had been produced by three high schools in three different states. $122 does not make me a wealthy woman. On the other hand, there has never been a time in my life when I was not delighted to have $122 that I didn’t have the day before. The amazing thing about this check is not its size, it’s that I published that play in 1975, which means I have been collecting royalties on it for thirty-five years!

I vividly remember how thrilled I was to open that long-ago letter and learn that “Cemeteries Are a Grave Matter” had been accepted. Now I am thrilled to know that the words I wrote thirty-five years ago still seem relevant to high school audiences.  That is why I write – not to get rich, but to entertain as I offer my view of the world.

Pampered Pets Day

Today was Pampered Pets Day. I leave tomorrow morning to spend a couple of days with my son’s family, and to attend a memorial service. Like any conscientious mom, I always feel a tad guilty when I leave my “kids,” even though I have a wonderful pet sitter who stays at my house.  To make up for going tomorrow, I took Lucy for a long walk on the Foothills Trail. It was a warm, sunny day, and she got to sniff several other dogs. The trail is her favorite destination; she actually shakes with anticipation when I pull into the trail’s parking area.

When we got home, I took Molly out. She wandered around, ate grass, sniffed the dirt and stared at the trees. Favorite cat activities. While I was supervising her, I saw a pileated woodpecker. They are magnificent birds, and I don’t see one very often. We also startled a flock of mourning doves.

Because my legs always ache after a walk, I laid down for half an hour and was quickly joined by Lucy and Molly, who love to snuggle.

Pampered Pets Day – a long walk in the sun, time to daydream and watch the birds, and a nap. Maybe it was really Pampered Peg Day.

The Brownie Disaster

Today I baked Valentine brownies for my grandkids. My idea was to frost the brownies and then, before the frosting hardened, press a Valentine candy heart  (the kind with love-related sayings on them) into the top of each piece. I chopped the walnuts, cracked the eggs, measured and stirred. While the brownies baked, I sorted through the bag of Valentine hearts and chose the sayings I liked best (U Rock; Puppy Love; Call Me) so they’d be ready for quick placement. I also started melting the butter and chocolate for the frosting.

I tested the brownies with a toothpick (twice, since they weren’t quite done the first time) and then, when they were baked to perfection, I removed them from the oven – and dropped the pan on the floor! It landed face down and bounced, leaving hot brownie crumbles strewn across the kitchen floor. I stared in disbelief at the mess. The 9 X 13 glass pan had simply slipped out of my hands before I could set it on the cooling rack.

Lucy rushed to the kitchen to see what had happened so I had to clean things up quickly before she ate any chocolate. I used a large spatula to scoop the crumbles into a garbage bag.  About a third of the brownies had remained stuck in the pan. Those will eventually be a dessert served in bowls with ice cream.

I washed the floor. I looked at the melted chocolate and butter in the frosting pan. I re-read the sayings on the candy hearts. And then I did what every writer does when a first draft is a disaster: I started over. I chopped more nuts, cracked more eggs, and sprayed the bottom of my other 9 X 13 pan. I baked another batch of brownies and this time I was extra cautious when I moved the pan from the oven to the cooling rack. They’re frosted now, and the colorful candy hearts with their Valentine sayings look festive and fun. I can hardly wait to give them to the kids.