Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Middle Grade Animal

This weekend, I am going to seriously work on a middle grade manuscript, and I have to steel myself for my daughter's editing. She may be only ten, but she has the ruthlessness of a Visigoth when it comes to critiquing. She rolls her eyes, gets a very patient tone and says, "Mom, you just don't get it."

I think Emma has a point. I have always said that middle graders are the hardest group to write for -- they are starting to develop slightly sophisticated taste, but they also have the brash criticism of young kids.

My first encounter with this was at a book fair. This one boy, he was about four feet three inches tall and wore a knit cap with a brim - he looked like a cartoon or one of the kids on South Park - walked right over to me and said, "Are you selling those Wimpy Kid books? Cause they suck." I was, for once, speechless. My daughter, who was next to me, sighed and said, "That's just Tyler. He's really smart but no one ever wants to sit next to him."


That's because so many middle graders are slightly crazy. This includes my middle grader. Here is a typical example of my life with her.

Yesterday, I kept seeing the light flashing on and off in the bathroom. Zen mother that I am, I rushed up the stairs thinking this was the beginning of some little known drug ritual the boys were performing or -- I didn't even want to go beyond that thought. I pushed the door open. My daughter looked at me, her eyes wide.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Nothing. I'm just shutting the light on and off to catch my pupils changing size."

Oh. How could I not know that?

Every day now, she carries a pocketbook to school, and if anyone even touches it, she goes berserk-o on us. What's in it? Gummy lifesavers, gel pens, a few hair clips and a picture of a kitten she liked from a magazine. (We have four cats, and plenty of photos of them, but like I said, they are slightly crazy)

I think teens are easier to write for because they all pretty much suffer from bipolar level mood swings, extreme self consciousness (remember feeling watched by people even when you were alone? or was that just me at sixteen?) and their sex drives. There's a certain uniformity to teens.

Middle grade kids differ. Roughtly half of Emma's class still worships Santa, the other half stopped believing last year, and a few, like Emma, are Santa Claus agnostics. Some of them date. Others think the opposite gender has cooties. Emma carries hand sanitizer for the times when she has to do peer review on a paper - and that peer is a boy. Her best friend is on boyfriend #3 - they text each other regularly but never speak or go anywhere.

Every weekend, she wants someone to sleep over. They watch scary movies (think Goosebumps) and sleep with the cats and flashlights. She told me that she secretly likes that I don't let her sleep over anybody else's house, but she's glad her friends can come to hers. It would be way too scary to spend the night in a strange house, but it has never occurred to her that her friends might be scared at her house.

When I asked her and one of her brothers to give me a "nice" smile for a picture, this was their response:

Wish me luck.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Of Birthdays and Normal

Today is my birthday, and we celebrated last weekend when my husband had a rare Friday night off. A close friend of mine came for a visit and bought me a freezer (I know, you are clearly middle aged when you are happy about receiving appliances), but she did it so I could expand my garden. And of course there was cake, chocolate and sinful, and I actually hid the last piece from the kids.

When the kids asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I told them I wanted to do something entirely NORMAL as a family. I wanted all of us to spend time together and not have it be at all weird.

"Impossible," my oldest said, "it's us, remember?"

But they agreed to do whatever I chose for the night.

"For one night, I want us to be normal. I want to go...bowling."

The kids gasped. But a deal is a deal, so off we went, all five of us to Thunderbird Lanes. And things were normal until we went to rent the shoes.

"You do what?" my daughter asked the man, "you wear someone else's shoes?" She backed away from the counter. "That is too gross. No. I'm not doing that. I'll just watch."

"They clean them," I said quietly, "I'll bleach your socks when we get home."

She shook her head. "Mom, they don't clean anything here. Look around."

I looked up in time to see the boys sprinting to the door. It turns out that Lynne was there. And they can't be ANYWHERE where Lynne is because, you know, they said, and it's way too complicated because of the myspace thing and what happened when Philip broke up with Devon and how her best friend got suspended, and just forget it, Mom, it's too hard to explain but we CAN'T be in there until she leaves. We CAN'T.

Well, fine, I told them. What do we do now?

"We're only five minutes from the beach," my oldest suggested.

"It's dark out and it's about 26 degrees," my husband pointed out.

"We could just go there," Christopher suggested.

So we did. On a cold, dark February night, we drove around the beach town where we swim in the summer and stood by the bay for a few minutes. It was cold and silent, but beautiful in a spare way. At least we were all together.

"Is this normal, Mom?" Emma asked.

"For us, it is." That's when my oldest put his hand on my shoulder. My 17 year old puts his hand on my shoulder as often as Haley's comet flies by so I looked up.

"Mom," he said, "I've decided what I want to do after I graduate."

I was still stunned by his gesture, and even more stunned by this sentence. "Christopher, you're going to college. You mean you picked a college?"

"I'm going to college later. After I graduate, I'm going into the Navy. I've thought about it for a long time, and I've decided."

The Navy.

I'm the Mom who calls the bus company when the bus is five minutes late, the one who doesn't go to the orthodontist's office without Neosporin and Tylenol in my pockebook, the one who never lets her kids sleep over anyone's house who isn't a blood relative.

The Navy. War. Distance. Danger.

But it made sense: my son's reluctance and final refusal to attend college night, the brochures that I thought were coming to the house unbidden, his lifelong interest in military history and war memorabilia, his strange request to go to the beach. We have always talked about the serious stuff at the beach.

"So are we normal?" Emma said, running over to me, "because I'm freezing and I want to get back into the car."

"For us, I guess," I answered.

Friday, February 13, 2009


I try never to complain about my lack of time, and I'm not complaining here: I'm commenting. For the past ten days or so, I have been so busy it's a little surreal. Or maybe it's just the lack of sleep talking, but I have learned a few things about being absolutely swamped:

1. Dust is good for children. It's natural, and it cuts down on that annoying wood glare.

2. You don't need to shave your legs even if all your "work" pants are in the wash; there's a perfectly good reason God made opaque tights.

3. It is possible to dry your hair using the car heat and a little gel. It's not a good idea, but it's possible.

4. They make a great whole wheat mac and cheese now that along with frozen peas covers all the major food groups for growing children. Plus, you can "cook" the peas by draining the macaroni water over them in the colander.

5. You CAN give your kids a sweatshirt that the dog napped on if you fluff it out really, really hard and spray it with Axe Body Mist for Men.

6. There's nothing wrong with a few Christmas decorations floating around the house. They're red and sparkly, and with a quick glance, they could be confused with Valentine's decorations.

7. Congress recently passed a law that stated bed linens are to be changed twice a month, not weekly. It has something to do with the environment and migrating whales and all those suds. I forget how it was phrased exactly, but it was something like that.

8. I need to ask those time manager folks if the following gets an A or a B priority:

Situation 1 from Child 1: "Mom, I have no pants in my drawer and I hear the bus up the street!"


Situation 2 from Child 2: "There's a hairball in my gym sneakers. Wait. Gross! Mom! OMG! It's a hairball AND cat puke. And that's the bus! MOOOOMMMMM!!!!!"

I can't tell you how happy I am that it's Friday...

Friday, February 6, 2009


I can't write five words but that I change seven. - Dorothy Parker

The problem with revision is that it never seems hopeful to me; it just makes me feel like I failed the first time around. And I can't really complain successfully (meaning I get sympathy) to anyone unless that person writes. Then I can get lots of sympathy.

Actually, I almost never talk about writing, particularly my writing, to anyone I see on a day-to-day basis because where we live (a small seaport village that mostly supported McCain/Palin and doesn't miss a televised football game) no one:

a) believes that writers live anywhere near here


b) believes that I am one no matter what I say -

since the "real" ones don't live so close to the Chumbucket Bait Shop.

So I can only complain here. I tried complaining to my boys and they put their Ipods in and motioned that they couldn't hear me. My husband shrugged and said, "Just get it done." When I tried to complain to my daughter, she said, "Is it the middle grade story with the girl in it?" When I told her it wasn't, she walked out of the room. (Maybe flounced is a better word there).

What's so awful about revision? Well, look at the word a minute. It's a re vision which means you have to go back to a story you have mentally finished envisioning and face all the holes and gaps and weirdness that you ignored or didn't notice the first time around. I don't want to face them; I just want them to go away or fix themselves.

I have a friend who writes all the time, but she is still unpublished. She has such a better attitude than I do that she deserves to be published way more than I do. She's never surly about anything. In fact, she always tells me how she feels this wild sense of hope when she sits down to revise (see opening sentence) and I say encouraging things to her like, "What is wrong with you?" She sees revision as an opportunity to make her writing really shine, to learn from her mistakes, to pull everything together.

I know she's right, only I know it on an intellectual level, not on an emotional one. I feel extraordinarily put upon when I have to revise. I love to WRITE novels, not tinker. And what is this obsession editors have with logic and chronology issues anyway?

I get even crabbier when people (the ones I live with who are starting to get hungry and wonder when I am going to start dinner) say, "How's the editing going?" Editing is easy; revision should never be confused with editing. Editing is fixing grammar, spelling, tweaking a few sentences; revision is going into the structure and reorganizing the walls. It's work and writing is fun.

I can't imagine going through the revision process with other people. My friend (see above paragraph) belongs to a writers' group and she revises publicly - meaning, they sit around a Starbucks and tell her where her work needs to change. And she likes this, she drives there on cold nights to listen to their thoughts on revision.

That amazes me. I find it much better to hunker down, feel really sorry for myself, put a stack of chocolate next to my desk, and talk about how awful revision is because as long as I'm doing that, I can keep avoiding it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Power of the Ring Ding

I am one of the annoying moms who grates organic carrots into the carob brownies and shreds winter squash into the corn bread. The above shot could be found in my kitchen.

That explains why my kids worship McDonald's and horde Smarties in their sock draw. I bake all the time, only I use fruit as a sweetner and smushed bananas instead of oil. They fell for it until they were about in the fifth grade and started going on unsupervised play dates where the mothers introduced them to the world of processed baked goods, refined flour, white bread, and the teachings of Stalin. Well, maybe not Stalin, but that's sort of how I felt.

Around that time, when my oldest was 10 and my youngest was around 4, we had a graduation breakfast at her pre-school. It was a rural Christian preschool which meant there were lots of doughnuts (in NYC, we were much more diverse and offered bagels and bialies). Emma and I contributed a fruit tray and whole wheat cranberry muffins. Upon being offered one of those sugary white doughnuts, Emma's eyes got very big and she said in an unusually loud voice, "No, thank you. Mom says doughnuts are toxic."

I turned away. I was hoping they wouldn't connect me with that kid, but since there were maybe eight kids in that preschool, the chances were slim.

So the other day while shopping in one of those giant warehouse stores, I told Emma and Philip to each pick out a treat so I could focus for five minutes on what I was buying. Emma picked out meltable chocolate and strawberries; Philip picked out Swiss rolls. The deal was I had to let them buy whatever they chose.

Then Philip's current and first girlfriend came over that afternoon. They have been "dating" (they go on myspace together while I put laundry away in his room; we occasionally all go out to walk the dog) for five months and are planning a small, but elegant, wedding. This is, remember, middle school.

This time they were playing around with the names of their future children, and discussing the likelihood of eye and hair color. Then I got this text while putting together a snack for them:

Mom, whatever you do, don't offer her the Swiss rolls. They r way 2 good 2 give away. Don't even say we have them.

I texted back: But u r going to share yr lives. Y not a Swiss roll?

Please Mom. Please. I'll read or do a chore if u just bring up the popcorn.

The amazing thing about the early teenage years is they are beginning to see irony -
in me, in their teachers, in each other, but not in themselves. Not yet.

I think that weird balance is one of the hardest nuances to capture in YA writing.