Here’s what I said about Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers on Facebook.

Katherine Rundell’s ROOFTOPPERS–a little Roald Dahl, a little of Kate DiCamillo’s THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT, and a layer of Shel Silverstein’s values, if not his style. Plus something that must be 100% this author, from whom I hope to see many, many, MANY more books.

Sometimes, I think I’m an easy touch–give me a book with beautiful prose, characters that are quirky and solid, a voice that makes the book feel like there’s magic in it, even when there isn’t an actual drop–and I’m in love. But I don’t think I’m really that easy, because getting all those things right is anything but.

Katherine Rundell does it. Beautifully.

At (probably) one year old, Sophie survives a shipwreck, to be discovered–floating in a cello case–by Charles, who has also made it off the ship alive. Sophie’s mother did not. Or so Edward and everybody else keeps telling her. Because Sophie’s mother was a cello player, and 1) women can’t play the cello (Let’s all say HA! together!), and 2) there were no women playing in the band on the ship. Sophie doesn’t believe Edward or everybody else, but she grows up very happily with Edward who is one of the Roald-Dahl-ish elements–the rare and special Good Grown-up (a la the grandmother In The Witches)–and serves them meals on piles of books until Sophie outgrows her tendency to break plates. She doesn’t feel the need to actively do anything about finding her mother until Miss Eliot, a Definitely Bad Grown-up, from the National Childcare Agency, decides Sophie is too old to be raised by a man who doesn’t use a blackboard to teach lessons and who lets Sophie wear trousers (said in appropriately horrified tone). A lovely temper tantrum leads to a clue that gives Sophie and Edward a reason to escape–Sophie’s mother may be alive and living (and playing cello?) in Paris. In Paris, while Edward deals with bureaucrats and red-tape, Sophie discovers the homeless children who live on the rooftops (and in the trees), the joy of roaming about the city at night, and the faint thread of cello music…from where?!

I also said in my Facebook post that I thought there was a little of Shel Silverstein in the book and a little of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant in it. I’m actually not sure why I felt like Shel was woven in there, but I think it has to do with placing importance on what really matters and not, at all, tolerating fools. And possibly the whole living with joy thing? (You read it, and then you tell me!)

The connection with The Magician’s Elephant comes, I think, in the fact that, while neither book is a fantasy book and there are no wizards or unicorns or elves (If I remember right about TME), both have a strong sense of…fate? Connections? Love? pulling the story along, making things possible that–in a story world of more realism–you just couldn’t count on, or even hope to expect. For me, books like these are pure escapism–on the one  hand, I don’t have to sit in tension about the outcome (I know, we’re all supposed to write tension, but, honestly, as a reader, it’s nice to occasionally let it go, yes?). Sophie can race all over the rooftops and, sure, there were some wonderfully gasping moments, but I can essentially relax and enjoy the feeling of delight and freedom that she’s living in. She’s escaping, and I get to go with her.

I’ll admit that (not really a spoiler) when Edward fades into the background through a large slice of the story, I missed him–I absolutely loved his character, and I loved the dynamic he and Sophie have. But I’m pretty sure that most children won’t feel that way–he is “replaced” by the rooftop children, who are at once more solid and undefinable, more intriguing, than Edward can be, and I’m guessing younger readers will welcome the shift. Besides, Edward is being true to himself in the steps he takes, just as Sophie gets to be true to her own self–the one she is discovering through her above-the-streets journeying. The one that takes her to…

Nope. Sorry. Get the book and follow the cello music. Then you’ll know.

Okay, so the boy has been dropped at college, seems to be happy there so far, and we have been home and back to work for two days. May I say, I highly recommend setting up a vacation, so you have a short work week and then your next weekend. Definitely helps the transtion!

And now I guess we’re at the point where my husband and I step back into a pattern that has a new, subtle shift in it, and we…see where it goes. There’s a tiny piece of me that is listing all the new changes I could try out, but I’m resisting the pull for now. Life has felt compressed for a few months now–all about making sure X and Y happened by a certain time, a certain day. I’m ready to let things expand into a long view for a bit and just watch to see what space I do have and what I might like to do with it. I’m going to restart with a chiropractor and see if we can do something about the low-grade but chronic ouches in my hip and back, but other than that I’ve made a semi-commitment to myself to stick with the existing for a while. I’ve got my job, which I’m still enjoying a lot, and I’ve got yoga–which has, honestly, been off the schedule a bit too much the past few weeks. I’ve got a picture book in the query queue with a few agents, and I’ve got this first draft of my MG novel to get written–I’m somewhere about halfway through, I think.

I came home to a stack of books that didn’t quite grab me, and I found myself going back to my Mrs. Pollifax mysteries for a reread. I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve turned to those. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend the first half dozen or so (not sure what happened to the series after that, but it didn’t keep the same magic for me). They’re fun, light, well-written mysteries, but they’re more than that. Dorothy Gilman did a brilliant job of painting a character who truly gets what living in the moment means, in a way I think Gilman herself must have. From the page in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax where she finds herself standing at the edge of a roof–possibly a second away from stepping off, possibly not–and then takes action to change the life that has brought her to this moment, Mrs. Pollifax is someone who looks closely at who and where she is. She constantly makes choices that–for her–represent incredible risk but also offer the chance for huge growth. I know, it’s typical of me that I would have a fictional hero, but, hey, they’re where you find them, right? Anyway, reading the books gives my brain a rest from all the changes that have been happening and reminds me again that change is a much better place than stagnation. They also remind me that there is a quiet place in the middle of change, almost always, for recentering and taking a clear look at your own “now.”

So, me and Mrs. Pollifax, that’s what we’re doing.

I don’t think I’m the only one who, as I get older, mark sections of my life by the milestones. You know: When I was in college. When I had my first job. Before marriage. Before the baby. After the baby. After the baby became the teenager. After…you get it. Usually, I tend to think about these milestones as just that–moments that, once they move into the past, become a dividing line between life sections. A line, as if the moment itself is only there for a second, a demarcation, but nothing else.

And then there are the times when you’re actually in the middle of a milestone, when it hasn’t yet become a line drawn in sand. (Or, if you’re anywhere near my age, a line drawn between two sides of a bedroom on The Brady Bunch. Oops–digression.) At this stage, a milestone feels much more like a transition.

Like this summer. We’re now on the countdown of less than a month before my son goes off for his first year of college. There are other events that I know, when I look back, will be those milestones I’ll build patterns around–my own going back to work full-time, the niece’s wedding we’re going to next month, the departure of one of my favorite cars (the very old, little red BMW). But the biggie is definitely my son leaving home. Who knows what the future holds, but the now–the right now–seems already full of befores and afters.

Before he leaves, we have (and will have):

  • Shopped for dorm supplies.
  • Bought him a new suit, the last one being purchased piecemeal for some friends’ Bar Mitzvahs way back in middle school, and this one being something he’ll wear at many jazz performances for the next few years. (And he’s holding onto the other as back-up!)
  • Replaced the very old, little red BMW with a not-QUITE-as old, but pretty darned near, Volvo wagon, which will actually let him transport his bass and one or two other members of whatever combo he’s playing with. The drummer will have to get his equipment there some other way.
  • Watched him clean out layers of history from the closets and drawers in his room, all the time knowing there will be more left to do later, but accepting what I get.
  • Nagged at him a million times, hugged him another million, and wondered at times if there were actually enough huts to hold me till the first visit.

After he leaves, we will:

  • Take a mini vacation before coming home to an empty nest.
  • Get back and touch with each other, wife and husband, and the whole relationship that we have today, as opposed to “before the baby”
  • Do some final tidying on his room and then pass his doorway a currently unimaginable number of times without going in.
  • Stop buying “Ian food” at the grocery store, except for non-perishable foods to be sent in a care package.
  • Struggle mightily and then reeducate ourselves with the TV or Wii remote don’t work, and we can’t get to where we want on Netflix.
  • Feel the emptiness of that third seat at the theater as the next X-men, Avengers, Spiderman, Pixar, Shakespeare, fill-in-the-blank movie comes out.
  • Send him first draft chapters or picture books that I just want him to read.
  • Text and email silly funnies and (hopefully) get his version back in return.
  • Wonder how, at the age that still feels so young, I got to the stage of being a Woman-Whose-Child-Is-Off-At-School. Wondering also who the heck that person even is? And being kind of happy and excited about finding out.

Yeah, those are the things on either side of the line. But today, this month, and for a few more weeks, I’m Mom in the Middle. In the middle of it all as it’s happening, experiencing a layer of something–a complication, an emotion, a passage? It’s there every single day, almost every single moment, even when we are doing everything the way we used to and not taking a single active step toward the way we will do it after.

Milestones. Transitions.




As of 10:00 tonight, I’ve written 11 scenes, 64 pages, and almost 16,000 words. I don’t put much weight into my word count, typically, but it’s a nice piece of fast drafting to see the numbers grow. I’m somewhere in the middle of Act II, with Act III and IV still to come. It’s that weird stage where I think I’ve probably got too many pages for a good balance of things that have happened and things that still have to happen, and there are peeps from the little voices saying things like, “You are going to have so much work to do,” and “Why even finish and print that scene, when nothing happens in it?” and “Sure, it’s easy to talk about putting all this off until revision, but you’re going to have to actually do it at some point, you know?”

It doesn’t always help that the voices aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know. And the good feelings I have about how I’m rolling the ideas and possibilities out onto the page–well, you know, those could all be delusions of some twisted grandeur, right?

I’m getting downright rude with the voices. I cut them off before they can finish what they want to say. I turn up my beboppy music, the stuff they don’t like to listen to. I use some of the words my dad wishes I wouldn’t, although I think he’d accept that it’s all for a good cause. And I keep writing.

I continue to bracket notes in each scene, places where–at some point–I will need to do research, or figure out the important roots and causes of my characters’ behavior. I let myself write more sentences than I know will be acceptable, so that I can explore a feeling or reaction or idea–knowing that, if I use it, the whole thing will show up in a different place and in totally different words. And I’ve stuck a couple of notes into the front of my binder.

  • What’s at stake? (I know it nebulously, but I will need to know it concretely.)
  • Get these kids moving. (As I realize I am writing way too many sitting scenes.)

More stuff to not fret about (too much!) until I’m ready to revise. Sometimes it scares me–all the big things I think I can leave out of this fast first draft. It doesn’t scare me nearly as much, though, as getting stuck in place trying to figure out a problem that won’t figure, or going down a worry path that has no end.

And, mostly, it’s good. Mostly I’m reveling in the click of the keyboard, the stack of pages in the binder, the fact that I am filling empty pages with words and sentences. Mostly, I’m loving being in love with a story again.


  1. I am making progress on this fast-first-drafting thing. I’m not getting in the after-work writing that I should, but I’m managing steady writing on the weekends. And I’m sticking to my goal of blasting along, without questioning or worrying (much) or stopping to fix stuff. No fixing allowed!
  2. The new job is making me happy. I seem, somehow, to have landed in a place where people are respectful and kind, just because that’s the kind of people they are. Plus, we’re trying to help education, plus I’m always busy and never bored, plus we’re in walking distance of frozen yogurt.
  3. My son leaves for college in six weeks. Tomorrow, we’re going shopping for dorm bedding. I’m voting for polka-dots, but he’ll probably pull out the whole independence thing and veto that, right?
  4. We didn’t see any fireworks last night, but we had several hours of BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Alice paid more attention to the clicking of the laser pointer, so I’m guessing cats don’t suffer in the same way as dogs. I hope all your dogs have recovered and relaxed!
  5. I just read and enjoyed Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic. Nice magical realism, with a slight flavor of Savvy, and a very sweet layer of friendship and family.
  6. I love three-day weekends.

Seriously, before you ask, yes, I’m way ahead of the game. I’ve fast-drafted Act I, but that still leaves Acts II, III, & IV to go. (Did you notice that higher math there?) And, right, Act I is shorter by far than, at least, Acts II and III. Don’t panic. I’m not worrying (too much) about what I’ll do after that first-round typing of The End. But I am getting curious about techniques for moving, effectively, from drafting to revising.

Here’s what i did last time I fast-drafted a novel. I took probably a week or so away from it, and then I sat down with the manuscript and started reading. I will tell you right here that I never finished reading that manuscript (at least not just reading). Instead, one big, huge problem jumped out at me: I had made the sidekick character way more active than the hero; the hero was (unconsciously, I think) doing a Nick Carraway and telling the story as he observed it happening, rather than as he made it happen. So I put the first draft down and started revising, pushing my hero as far to the front of every scene as I could. These were the scenes I sent to my critique group, as I wrote them. And from that point on, I was revising from my critique group feedback, as well as from my own ideas–a pretty happy state.

At this point, I feel like I’ll probably try this technique when I finish the first draft of this new MG (I have got to come up with a sharable working title). This whole fast-drafting thing is a return for me to something that actually worked once upon a time, and–since it seems to be working a second time–I’m feeling a bit tremulous about reaching out into experimentation. I know it’s a good thing in general, but last time it left me in a pretty big pit, so maybe I need to get my process base a little more solid before I slide out onto the ice again. (My apologies for the majorly mixed metaphors. And the alliteration.)

Anyway, I am curious about how other people handle this stage. I’m going to share a few links to a few other processes. Some of them I’ve played with, some look effective, some are intriguing. And then I’d love if we got this conversation going in the comments-what do YOU do?

Just the other day, David Lubar linked to a WriteOnCon post he wrote about how he deconstructs his novels. I thought his process looked really interesting and valuable; I like how he really sticks to the basics.

Martha Alderson’s Plot Planner is another wonderful tool. Martha is brilliant at nailing the holes and flaws in a plot, and her planner is a good tool for laying everything out and seeing what you have and what you don’t. I’ve used this tool with Martha and with my critique partners. What usually happens for me is I get excited about what I’m seeing (and perhaps a bit lazy), and I run back to writing. While it is good to be writing, I’m not sure I’m using the tool to its fullest strength.

The other thing I’ve heard people talk about doing is writing a synopsis. I know people hate synopses, and maybe the only reason I don’t is that I’ve only done them at the extreme ends of the writing process–as a conference assignment when I’d barely started a story and as a required submission piece when I had a completed manuscript. (When I have written them, I’ve used Hélène Boudreau’s very doable synopsis steps.) I’m assuming people use them at other stages to identify holes and weak spots, but I’m not sure how exactly that works.

So those are my thoughts and my pointings to other thoughts. What about you? What do you do with that first draft manuscript once it’s done, and what processes have helped you bridge from that stage into second draft revision? Thanks in advance for your ideas and tips!

Last night, I finished the first scene of my new MG novel. I had printed out my Scrivener scene cards and put them in a binder, which is part of my fast-drafting method. All I (supposedly) have to do is flip to the next scene card, without leaving Word (which is what I use to actually write, versus plotting), and keep typing.

I had started the scene a day or two before and written about a page and a half, but it had been a bit of a slog–not unusual, I’m guessing, for the very first pages. Then last night, very possibly powered by way too many cookies, I shot through the rest of the scene. And it was awesome. I paused a few times to think about one or two things, then either skipped over a problem or wrote something and pushed on. I wrote a couple of lines that I absolutely love. I wrote a few more that I sure don’t hate. I just wrote. And, in whatever first draft version this may be, I wrapped up the scene.

And then I remember that feeling. The one where you actually get something on a real page, and you feel in your gut that you are truly starting a new project, and you had fun with the writing, and you like some of what you created, and you think…maybe.

Maybe I will finish this draft, quickly, like I want. Maybe I will see how to revise it, and I will jump in. Maybe I will have more magic as I revise, and even more as I find the right threads to pull together, more as I polish. Maybe this story will be one of the ones that I finish, that I love (with other moments, obviously) through to the end.

Maybe I have just started to create a book.


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