I am so happy when I’m browsing shelves–physical or electronic–and I take a chance on a book and then fall in love. That’s how it was with Emily Horner’s A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend. I was out of books that were grabbing me, so I checked the Books Available Now (or whatever it’s called) option in my library’s e-book browser and started searching. And while the premise sounded good, I’ll admit it was the cover that pulled me in.

And then it was the words.

Julia, Cass’ best friend and perhaps the first and only person she has ever been in love with, is dead (car accident) before the book opens. Her death is literally a turning-life-upside-down moment for Cass and for the drama kids who were Julia’s friends, and maybe Cass’ friends as well. The question of whether they are or not is one of the big threads of the book, and Cass’ doubts and anxieties about that have a very real, solid truth to them.

The story is, essentially, a beautifully subtle, layered exploration of all the ripples that spread out from Julia’s death, primarily for Cass, but also for the other teens. The kids decide to put on the play that Julia was writing when she died–a musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. Julia is in every word of the play, she is there in the set building, in the costume design and creation, in the rehearsals, and in all the back-scene dynamics of the theater. And what we get to see is how the characters deal simultaneously with that presence and with her absence.

We also get to see Cass dealing with her own, personal loss of a best friend, Julia’s boyfriend’s accusation that Cass wanted Julia to be something other than a friend, and Cass’ own uncertainty about whether or not that was true. And we get to see Cass do this from the seat of her bicycle–as she takes the summer road trip that Julia had planned for the two of them into a solitary bike ride across the country. Just Cass, her bike, a tent, and an emergency credit card–and, oh, yes, Julia’s ashes.

This book has so many layers, and they are all interwoven beautifully into one integrated story. The chapters are divided into Now and Then titles–Now being the last few days of summer and the preparation to put on Julia’s play, Then being Cass escape on her bike, earlier in the summer. I am not a big fan, typically, of this kind of structure–I find myself getting confused and often don’t want to step from one storyline into the other. Absolutely not a problem here. Horner does a beautiful job of making the transitions smooth and quickly pulling us back into the tension thread of the “new” plot thread. Plus, somehow, she manages to make the reader feel that both storylines are leading to the same ending, the resolution that we are hoping for, but that we don’t dare assume or expect will happen. One of the big themes of the story is that, when someone dies suddenly–especially at a young age–any certainty you had about life having a safety net pretty much vanishes, and that translates into not trusting that these characters will win a happy ending. Which, even as you see relationships strengthen and friendships deepens, maintains a wonderful page-turning tension. Just beautiful.

The other thing I love about this book is that there are so many drops of things that Horner could have turned into an issue, could have focused the entire story on, but…didn’t. Cass and her family are Quakers–their belief in following one’s need is one reason behind Cass’ parents acceptance that she needs to take this bike trip, alone. It also becomes a piece of Cass’ wondering about the play itself–as her mother says, it’s not like you expect a play called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad to be without violence. But this book is about someone who happens to be Quaker, not about a Quaker girl, if that makes sense. Cass’ thoughts about her own identify, whether or not she is gay, are not the point of the story–the point is that Julia’s abrupt exit from her life is making Cass look at everything in a new way–her sexual preference, her religion, her friendships, her future. Everything.

Because that’s what loss does.

I absolutely love Cass’ character. She is a wonderful mix of thoughful and impulsive, someone who mostly thinks before she acts, often too much and for too long, but who every now and then just….wow! Acts. And Horner’s choice to put half this story on the bicycle is brilliant, because it allows Cass to be both active and introspective, to be thinking and doing–all at the same time. The pacing and plot of the story rolls beautifully, with several Oh, no! moments that I never saw coming. And quite a few Oh, yeah! moments that were equally as surprising, but always, always right.

Definitely a recommendation for your to-read list.

Last week, I mentioned that I’m remembering something all over again–sometimes, the writing process is whatever is working. Today, I want to talk a little more about that.

First, a picture of my writing space this morning, just because it makes me happy.

Writing SpaceCozy, yes?

So…process. When I was freelancing from home and working part-time, I tried to fit writing time into most, if not all, my days. Frankly, as I shifted from working in my own office to showing up at someone else’s work space, that got harder to do. Remember the kids who the preschool/elementary teachers used to describe as maybe not so good at transition? Yeah. That would be me. It’s not that I don’t like transition; it’s that I like/need/want to take a lot of time over it. I don’t zoom well from one thing to another, which means I never zoomed well from the part-time work out and about to the writing work tucked in back at home. I would need a snack, a bit of reading time, some cuddling with the cat. Which all added up to minutes not writing, and all of a sudden the clock would have jumped forward to some other piece of life that needed to get done.

Nevertheless, I did write, i did make progress, I did get those picture books written and many-times revised. And I got started on this latest MG idea. So when I went back to work full-time, something I really wanted to do and felt ready to do–I was a bit worried/stressed about keeping the writing going. I started putting more pressure than I was happy with on getting to the computer in the evening after work–after a grocery store run, after a yoga class, after a catch-up with a friend.

You think I don’t do well with transition? Try me with self-pressure!

A while back, I read this post by Nathan Bransford, in which he says he doesn’t write every day, and I (okay, “you”) don’t have to either. I remember thinking at the time that, yes, that’s good, that’s nice to hear, but, really….I still need to TRY. And then, more recently, I was at a critique-group meeting, where my crit partners had just read the second set of two or three scenes I’d sent them, and one crit partner said, “I want you to be thinking about what your process is. Because whatever you’re doing is obviously working.”

Um…I was pretty much writing on weekends.

From Nathan’s post: “I’m not a morning person, so I can’t wake up early to write in the mornings. And after a long day’s work, I’m usually too mentally exhausted to write. So I get my writing done on weekends.”

Now I will admit that I am still not QUITE comfortable with the fact that I’m not touching my story every day. I still hear that little “should” voice every now and then telling me how much more I’ll be connected to the characters, to their problems, even if I only sit down for 30 minutes every night. I come to most weekends knowing that this is the writing time, this is when I’m going to/supposed to get those pages done, and that is its own version of self-pressure, right?

But it seems like, when I have that space and time, when I can relax into my morning, get a few things done, then open up the computer, check out where I was at the last session and where I think I am going next…the words come. And if the feedback from my critique partners, some of whom have been reading my writing for going on 18+ years, is any indication, they’re coming pretty well.

So, is this my process? For the past months, yes. For today, yes. Beyond that, I have pretty much given up trying to decide.

What’s working for you right now? Is it the same process you’ve always used, or have you (or life) changed things up recently? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Okay, so…

I’ve been working full-time for about a year now. Loving the job, loving the busy-ness, loving the people I work with and the challenges (yes, I landed in a fantastic place!). But…one thing that I have obviously and totally let go is this blog.

Not what I wanted to do.

So I’m going to try getting back into this with a baby step. Once a week. That’s all I’m asking from myself, and it’s a tester to see if I get enjoyment and fun from posting or if I just put stress pressure on myself. Hoping for the former! The posts may be shorter than they used to be (oh, stop that cheering!), and I’m sure they’ll be a mix between writing stuff and life stuff. I’d like to get some links up for you, too, to posts I find interesting or useful or to books I’ve read and loved.

Like this one about writing with a new baby from Jen McConnel. Oh, yes, it’s been years, but I remember. And, no, going back to work full-time and still writing is NOT (for me at least) as challenging as having a newborn and still writing, However, it is another phase in my life where I’m having to figure it out. (See below). Go, Jen!

For today, a quick catch-up:

  • This is where I work. RAFT is an educational nonprofit that provides educators with professional development, educational products, and totally cool/fun repurposed materials–all focused on the idea that hands-on learning, where you actually touch and build and explore is the way to go. I’m the Grants Manager, helping raise funds to support our mission and programs. After years of looking for a job I might actually like, I found one I love.
  • I am empty-nesting. Since our son is an only child, we did the first college/empty house thing all in one fell swoop. First, may I say, thank goodness for the full-time work; otherwise, I do think I could have driven myself crazy. But…right now, he is really happy with what he’s doing, I am really happy with what I’m doing, and–yes–I’m getting to know my husband again and finding out that we are still more than good together. So, yay.
  • I am writing. My middle grade magical-realism story is making me love writing again. And I am coming to terms, once again, with the fact that maybe having a process just means doing whatever gets the writing done. My biggest challenge with the full-time work thing is trying to use my weekday evenings for other-than-life stuff: i.e., writing. I. Am. Not. Good. At. This. But…I have realized that, being the total introvert, please-give-me-the-whole-weekend-at-home-to-recharge person that I am, well…I have lots of hours for writing during those weekends. And I am turning out more pages than I was before I went back to work. By a long shot. So, yes, I lose that touch-your-story every day feeling, which I still believe in, but I’m writing and I’m loving it and I’m feeding my critique group several scenes on a regular basis. So–process!
  • I am querying several picture books at the “ready” stage, so I’m back in the query process, which–I have to say–feels surreally different from the last time I was at this stage. Back then, I was freelancing at home with a son in elementary school, and while I was doing many things, I had a less packed-full life, which meant TONS of time to obsess and worry and recheck email for query responses. Now I get mine out there, I check to see if the not-heards have been long enough to mean a “no,” and I get some more out there. I am still hoping and dreaming, but I am also fretting less. Good? Not good? No judging here, just noting.

I know, I said, shorter. Maybe I just don’t have it in me. In the one statement that I probably could have left it all at: I am balancing. Pretty well and very happily. And now I’d like to weave this blog back into this balance. So….see you back here on a more regular basis, I hope!

For Valentine’s Day, I’m sharing a few of my favorite “romantic” scenes from books. Feel free to toss your favorites into the comments.

  • When Anne breaks a slate over Gilbert’s head.
  • When Professor Bhaer shows up in Jo’s home town.
  • When Calvin kisses Meg.
  • When Mary and Dickon first meet.
  • When Hermoine tells Ron he has “the emotional range of a teaspoon.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I didn’t make it a resolution. I didn’t even talk about it in my post about my 2015 Word. I’m not sure, when I wrote that, if I had even thought about this goal.

Yet, here I am on February 1st, and I achieved it. I meditated every day in January.

10 minutes. I have a timer on my phone, and I set it for 10 minutes. I’m sure there are people out there who can manage without the timer, but for me, it’s a little tool that helps me pull my brain back from wondering how long I’ve actually been mediating. And wondering if it’s time to stop yet. And feeling like I need to know.

Pretty obvious why I need meditation, right?

I got another tool. I downloaded HabitBull onto my phone. I thought, well, I won’t push myself to do this every day, and if I don’t make it every day, that’s fine, but maybe it would be nice at the end of the month to see what I did manage. (And, yes, it was nice to see that I managed the whole thing!) It’s a very simple app, but it does what I need–most of which, it turns out, is just sitting there on the top menu on my phone, reminding me about its presence and my goal. And there were many days the first few weeks on which that reminder was the thing that got me sitting.

So 30 days. Pretty consistently for 10 minutes every day, although there were definitely a few days where I didn’t make the whole 10 minutes. Still…every day, I sat. I closed my eyes, and I breathed.

And when HabitBull asked me if I wanted to keep going, I said Yes.

Here’s the thing I’m thinking about today, as I start in on February. I know I need to meditate. I doubt you’ll find anyone on the planet (okay, you COULD, but why bother!) who would say meditating isn’t a good thing. I know that my brain is a brain that needs not only that 10 minutes of relative calm every day, but one that needs practice in exactly what meditation is for–pulling back out of the world, out of the rush that my brain often makes it–and just breathing. It’s a brain that needs training (yes, still, at my age) in responding rather than reacting, in learning to see the reaction rise and catch it, gently, to observe and think and make a decision around.

But…not seeing it yet. No, sure I’m getting better. I’ve been meditating on and off for a few years now and working on the whole mindfulness thing, and I do see a difference. And believe me, if I can, I’ll keep doing this–through February and into March and so on. Heck, I’d love to keep doing this To Infinity and Beyond! What I’m being curious and observant about is this habit thing. The stages of needing an app to remind oneself, to thinking about it during the day on your own, to having it become almost autopilot–not the meditating itself, but the remembering. I am really, really, really not good at the I Will Do X or Y Every Day. Every Day is one of the things that sends my brain into reaction–and not a good one.

I say, again, pretty obvious why I need meditation!

So for now I’m doing the meditation, and I’m doing the observing. I’m watching my breath and I’m watching my habit form. And I’m watching to see what will feel different about the sitting and when it will start. And how it will move forward. And what will change and what will stay the same.

Which is, I guess, what progress looks like.

Every time I hit the library, I try to bring home a stack of picture books. I have probably reached my 10,000 hours of reading kids’ novels, but I don’t think I’m there yet on the picture book. Plus, hey, I love them.

Yesterday, in my stack was a copy of Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.

Julia

Let’s put aside my awe (and jealousy) of people who can both write and draw, and let me just tell you one of my favorite things that this book does. Or, rather, that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t explain.

Here’s the first sentence: “Julia’s house came to town and settled by the sea.”

What? Huh? A house that actively comes on its own? How? And why the sea?

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

Granted, the art adds to the words. We do see the actual arrival of the house (Note: Don’t skip the inside title page, or you’ll miss a lovely piece of the story.) But even the art will, if you let it, just open up more questions. Why is the house transported the way it is? Why did the house (or Julia) pick the sea? Why does Julia have to plant her mailbox?

Again…doesn’t matter.

Because all these whys and wheres, and the hows and whos and whats in the rest of the book, are part of the story world. The house transports the way it does (no, I’m not telling you!), because in this world it can. Julia has to plant the mailbox, because houses have mailboxes, and–duh–you can’t plant your mailbox until your house arrives and settled.

Within the context of the world, the details make sense, and–flip the coin–the details create a world that makes its own sense.

I know there are readers who will certainly ask these kinds of questions. They’ll ask why Julia’s house has a workshop. They’ll ask why Patched Up Kitty is actually made of patchwork cloth. They’ll ask why, if Julia is lonely, she makes a sign advertising for lost creatures.

But I would take just about any wager that the readers who ask these questions won’t be kids. Because kids work within the world they’re reading. And even if they have a question, they’ll feel in their own answers–they’ll add their own layers to the words they’re hearing and the pictures they’re seeing.

They’ll use their imaginations.

I think I have possibly gotten a little preachy here. (Who, me?!) But this is one of my favorite things about good picture books–that they create an entire world in so few words, so few pages of art. (If you want to see one that does a lovely job with pictures only, I also brought home a copy of Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle-gorgeous and sweet.) And that world may have its own rules, it may have elements that would–in our world–make no sense. But how many things in our world actually make total sense when we’re young. Plus there are other “worlds” out there, other worlds that we’ll grow up to learn about and that are outside our daily experience, and they are open to exploration and experimentation and adventuring.

Possibly books like this help kids get ready for worlds like that.

More.

Even to me, that looks intimidating, when I just type it out there and leave it surrounded by white space. But I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think it’s all a matter of font. I’m not thinking “more” like this:

MORE!

I’m thinking “more” like this:

More.

Or at least that’s the best I can do, in terms of comparison, with my simple font choices here.

Here’s the thing. For some reason, I’ve been itching to figure out something new and different I can add to my life this next year. I’m sure this is in part the empty-nest syndrome, feeling like there is a gap to be filled and a freedom to be utilized. Plus, I’m a couple of steps into a new decade of my age, and I typically do add something new each decade. So I’ve been looking around and thinking about what this new thing could be and how I could fit it in with working full-time and all the writing I want to do and keeping up with my yoga and getting more knitting done…

Major forehead slap.

See, I don’t actually need anything new and different. I actually have a plenty long list of things I already want to be doing and, if I’m going to be a little self-judgmental here, on which I am already not spending enough time. One of the things I haven’t figured out yet, with going back to work, is how best to use my evenings. I’m not a late nighter, and all too often by the time I get home and “settled,” the only thing that really sounds appealing is reading a good book. Which, yay, but…that’s not getting the pages written or the rows knitted. And then the life-things I also don’t get done on the weekdays start to take over the weekends…ick. It’s not really time management, I don’t think, as much as Introvert Management. I love my job and I love the people I’m talking to and seeing all the time, but I’m allowing myself so many recovery hours that I’m not getting to the things I actually value and need to prioritize.

So nothing new. Nothing different. Just more time and more commitment.

More.

Do you have a word or a theme for this coming year? Share it in the comments so we can all be inspired, and feel free to link to any post you’ve written about it. And a Happy New Year to you all.

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