progress report

So I haven't told you about our Mad Men dinner last Sunday (photos, too!), or the trip to Orlando for Scholastic Book Fairs (fabulous! and more photos!), and here I am, ten days later, bumping up against a trip to Norfolk, Virginia tomorrow, to work with teachers, so I don't know when I'll catch you up. But you'll be proud of me. I've spent the entire week in this pink chair (covered with an old quilt for summer comfort), next to the cold fireplace, STEEPED, I tell you, STEEPED in 1964 Freedom Summer and Book Two of the Sixties Trilogy.
I have barely come up for air. These are the days when I must remember to eat, bathe, converse, those days of long, long hours with a story, trying to keep it together, of-a-piece, when it seems so unwieldy, and when so much is unknown.

Let me say that again: so much is unknown. oy vey.

And, as much as this place is frustrating, it is also thrilling -- thrilling. I'm making connections left and right, up and down, over and under. I'm scrambling to keep up with them, I'm shouting A-HA! and grinning with delight. I'm groaning and tearing my hair out. I'm moving forward, back, stalled, forward again.  I go to bed thinking about the story, and I wake up with inklings, phrases, full sentences waiting for me. I leap out of bed to capture them.

This morning's sentence: "I am in love with Thor Heyedahl and I want to set sail on Kon-Tiki."


BUT. I have learned to be ever-faithful to these gifts that float up from the subconscious. I wrote that sentence down. Let's see what happens.

In the meantime, I suit up and show up. Here I am, at the page. I am beginning to understand my story. I take notes and put them right into the manuscript, at this stage. It's similar to how I work with notebooks and is perhaps the evolution or next stage of that.

Perhaps I'll be brave enough to share that process with you soon. I want you to meet Sunny. She's twelve, and she's nothing short of amazing. I'm not sure she's in love with Thor Heyerdahl (I was), but she makes me laugh, and that counts for a lot.

Happy Weekend, y'all. Stay cool. Don't know how it is where you are, but Hotlanta is earning its nickname this summer.

resistance is futile

Thanks, Tara, Thomas, and Daniel. Those pools were too good to resist; thank goodness I had great water companions this morning in Orlando, to encourage me to jump on in, clothes and all.
 I dunno... you get over fifty, and it really doesn't matter if they're all lookin' at ya. Life is short. The water was fine, fine, fine. And so was the company.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Berkeley:

greetings from orlando

I am here. Gettin' ready to hang out with Scholastic Book Fairs peeps this evening, talk a little with them about Countdown, and have some supper. Can't wait. This is the view from my window on the 19th floor.
I really, really, really, really, really want to swim in this pool, too. Pools.

Maybe I will.  More from the other side!

xo, Debbie

theme: what is it?

Hey, y'all. I'm off this morning to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I'll be speaking at Hamline University about THEME in literature. Have a great weekend, and play nice with one another! I leave you with this fabulous photograph of the shelves at Riley's Reads at Vineyard Haven in Martha's Vineyard. Thanks to my friend Marianne for snapping and sending this, and thanks to Riley's Reads for hand selling Countdown and displaying it so prominently. What fabulous company it's keeping! Whoo-hoo! And... doesn't that cover POP! Pick me up!
This speech on theme was hard for me to write. I've been at it for three weeks, and I'm not sure that what I've got is what will best serve my audience, MFA students who want to write for children and young adults. As I say in my speech opening... I learn so much when I sit down to write about what I know... I especially learn how much I don't know.

And it occured to me, as I sat down to write about theme, that I had barely given it a serious thought in years. Maybe I had even forgotten about theme, as I wrote and wrote and wrote. Oh no!

Let's pretend I haven't forgotten about theme... I've just internalized it, right? Then what would you say are the themes in my writing? What do I come back to, over and over again? What is important to me, as a writer? What is the theme of, say, Countdown? Is there more than one theme? Are there right answers to this question? Let me know, will you? And I'll share my speech with you, when I'm home.

Home Saturday, just in time to figure out what we're cooking on Sunday for the season four premiere of Mad Men! Remember last year's dinner, very heavily influenced by Julia Child? Don't know if we can top this. But we'll have fun.

march against fear

Thank you so much for the supportive, encouraging, you-can-do-it mail this past ten days regarding this post about starting over with book two of the Sixties Trilogy.

I have wrestled mightily this past ten days, over and up and under and out and down and through with this new story, and as I have, I have realized some truths about myself, the way I work, my resistance to killing my darlings, as well as a huge truth about the original novel for book two.

Long and short, I am going back to the original draft. But not entirely. I am going back to it in the way that I made lunch today, pictured (in part) below. Let me explain. 
I am still rewriting the entire original novel. So much so, that it may as well be brand new. I am using Sunny -- my new narrator -- as my main character. I am tossing so much about the original draft that I can hardly see it as the original story. But here's the thing:

I am using the spine of the original novel as my plot for the new novel, and we are staying in 1966. If you followed my twitter stream last week, you'll know that, at one point, I was convinced that we needed to move the entire novel to 1964 and create a new plot from the ground up.

I called my friend Diane Ross at the McCain Library Civil Rights Archive at the University of Southern Mississippi and told her I needed her to pull together every oral history she had from Freedom Summer volunteers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, so I could visit in the next few weeks and sit in the reading room with all those primary sources, in order to find my story.

I pulled off my bookshelves my dear-to-me books about Freedom Summer, about personalities I one day want to write about -- maybe I could include them in this novel! Yes! I was on the right track! Excited, I ordered Bob Zellner's book about his participation in the civil rights movement -- Zellner was the first white field secretary for SNCC, has a terrific story to tell about Freedom Summer, and is the subject of a new film by Spike Lee. Oh, was I ever on the right track.

In fact, my first published book was a picture book, Freedom Summer. That book is going into its 14th printing! Still going strong. I did so much research for that book, read so much, internalized so much, that I feel I could bring 1964 alive in a heartbeat. Yes, 1964. Freedom Summer. We'd be further away from the protests of the Vietnam War, and firmly entrenched in the civil rights movement. That was the way to go.

At the same time I was feverishly gathering my forces last week, my good writer friend Deborah Hopkinson sent me the new biography of Pearl Buck -- many of you wrote to me last week suggesting it as well, and I hadn't known about it; I had only known that my Sunny begins her story (as you read in that same previous blog post) by saying, "I am reading The Good Earth, and I am suffocating."

My sweet husband bought me a copy of The Good Earth. I read it for the first time in decades.  I saw immediately how this amazing novel of turn-of-the-century China fit with the modern civil rights movement -- my undermind, my subconscious was indeed at work, and I was listening to it, listening and obeying, making connections right and left.

But my story wasn't coming. I had two pages. I eeked out a chapter. I loved Sunny's voice, but the story went nowhere. It petered off in each of three different directions I took it. All my previous novels have built up and spilled out, thirty or forty pages, all these fabulous characters vying for center stage. In previous novels, including my original version of book two of the Sixties Trilogy, I sit back, spent, after those first, breathless thirty or forty pages and say, Whew. Now what?

But I see a shape. I see a path. I understand I have a novel, and that is exhilarating.

I am not exhilarated by what I've got so far for the new book two, but I am highly intrigued and very hopeful. And I'm beginning to use my practical mind, here. Be realistic, Deb. You love Sunny. And maybe, just maybe, Sunny belongs in the original book two. Maybe, just maybe, we really do belong in 1966 with book two. (The music is better, for one thing.)

Maybe, just maybe, I need to trust my original instincts with book two, and with the trilogy, instincts that told me I needed to be in 1966 with book two. And if I do that, if I trust my gut and go with it, that means the thing I did not want to face when I met with my editor at ALA and we had the hard discussion about the original draft for book two:

I need to face the fact that Hang The Moon, as I have called this book for thirteen years, is dead. Oh, what a grief I feel over this! You, my reader friends, thought I canned it and started over? Not on your life. I saved it -- off to the side, like some jeweled thing to come back to one day, in all its Tennessee Williams glory -- and then I started a brand-new book two.

I'll show you, you editor you! Can the Tennessee Williams? This entire NOVEL is Tennessee Williams! You can't take my characters away from me! I'll hold on to them for dear life! I'll just tuck them over here, in this safe place, and I'll go off and create a whole new book for you!

But that won't work, friends. If it would, I would be well into a new book two, with its forty pages of exhilaration, calling to me. Instead, what I've got is a lot like my lunch elements, above, piecemeal, but waiting to be combined into something wonderful: I am going to cannabalize from the original book two, I'm going to lift its spine out of its body, right now, and put it into the new book two, which I will then make Sunny's story.

How will I do this? I don't know. I have hope, and the tools of my trade, including a great willingness and persistence, and my lovely subconscious, to help me make connections, to help me structure this plot, create characters who serve my story... or the story will serve them! -- and to finish book two, smack in 1966. Elvis. The Beatles. Rock and Roll. James Meredith's March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, June 1966. My girls, caught in it, but a brand-new story within that framework.

My subconscious didn't steer me wrong about 1964. It's a stellar year, full of glorious stories. And I will revisit it. Just not for the Sixties Trilogy.

So my task is a total and complete rewrite of book two, letting go of the Tennessee Williams, simplifying (which is so hard), finding Sunny's voice and her path, unearthing her people, and allowing her story to unfold.

No small task. But no one said it would be easy. My editor wrote me an editorial letter when we met at ALA. It applies to every character in the new book two, and to me as well. I share it with you in its entirety, below. 
 I am ready to do this now. Please come with me. As Joe and John Henry discover in my very first book, Freedom Summer, it's important to walk through new doorways with a friend.

taking time

Tomorrow I'll tell you where I am with the novel. Yesterday I got away to the North Georgia Mountains, and it was good. A few knick-knacks, some water, some music, an earnest cemetery, peaches and blackberries, but most of all, the funny, comfortable, sweet company of my true love and those soothing, rolling mountains that stand like ancient, silent sentries at the opposite end of the Blue Ridge chain that I left in Maryland six years ago.
I started in this morning with the blackberries. I've got a cobbler in the oven now. I've got umpteen jillion windows open on my laptop. I'm paying bills and answering email and organizing travel and doing research, and writing a speech and refinancing my house, and wishing for more time with the novel, and... well, life is back to the desk.

I live a privileged life. Period. I also live a life packed with deadlines and more deadlines, and administrivia that often chokes me. But you know what? I am glad to have the work and the deadlines and the opportunities. So. Let's take a break. Come have some cobbler with me. Got any vanilla ice cream? Ruby recommends Bluebell.
 See y'all tomorrow --

canning the tennessee williams

Truth-telling time. If I can tell you when the writing is going well, I can also tell you about times when it's all over the map, which is right now, with Book Two of the Sixties Trilogy.

I have a draft, I do. It's not a GOOD draft, but I knew that, even as I sent it to my editor to read before our meet-up at ALA.

But what I didn't know was just how far off the mark this draft was. As I looked into my editor's face last Monday (a week ago) and listened to him talk about the draft he had just read, I realized: it's got to go.

I didn't jump to conclusions. I just listened, offered my take, listened some more, and spent the rest of the day in a kind of dumbstruck cloud. I slept on it. I considered my options. I love this story. I love these particular characters. I don't want to let them go.

I've written a story about two girls, cousins, who intensely dislike one another -- they have just met, and are as different as night and day -- and who are forced to spend the summer together in Mississippi. They end up making a trip together from Mississippi to Memphis, to find Elvis Presley, whom one of them is convinced -- with reasonable proof -- is her father. They journey north into the James Meredith March Against Fear, which is journeying south from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. It has always been this way. I have been working on this story for... years.

I love its premise. And, for all the years I've worked on this novel, Birdie, our Mississippi girl, has stolen the show. Margaret, who comes into this family suddenly, has been unlikeable, and she is my heroine. So I worked hard on this draft to make Margaret a sympathetic character.

And, lo and behold, my editor thinks Margaret's voice is spot-on. Excellent! He thinks Birdie is unlikeable. And so is most of her chaotic southern family. They no longer serve the story, as it is now part of the Sixties Trilogy, and must do its work in that context.

I didn't see this at all, as I worked on this draft, but as I listened to my editor, I began to understand it, too. This story isn't what I need for the Sixties Trilogy. Yes, it takes place in 1966, but this loving, chaotic, amazing, nutty cast of characters aren't serving the story I need to tell right now. I have built a world for my girls to inhabit, but this is a long, languid story full of the atmosphere and craziness of the steamy sixties south, and of the kind of southern storytelling this story needs. I think it may be an adult novel, truth to tell, and this isn't the first time I've had that thought.

I need a story that grabs the reader and tosses her squarely into the middle of the 1960s and shouts GO!

Sorta like I did with Countdown. I need to remember that Countdown was re-written and revised so many times, in order to get it right, and that the beginning was crafted over and over, to lend it an immediacy and authenticity that it needed. But I didn't let go of my characters.

Still, at this moment, it feels right to let go of Margaret and Birdie, and come back to them another day. It feels right to "can the Tennessee Williams," and to begin again. I am not even scared to do this, and I know why: I am still numb. Numb from that conversation, and numb from the contemplating on where to go next.

So I started a new file called "1966." I pulled out my research materials -- and boy, do I have research materials!  I began to read and call to me my story. I did little else but sit in the pink chair and play midwife (so don't come visit right now; it ain't pretty). And I woke up a few days ago with a girl named Sunny whispering in my ear:

"I am reading The Good Earth, and I am suffocating."

I leaped from bed -- literally -- and ran for my notebook, where I began to capture all I could before it evaporated. I have a first chapter. I'm not sure where it's going. I'm using my notebook and I'm making my lists -- list after list -- by hand, so I can figure out what I'm trying to say and what is asking for expression --

I'm keeping the Meredith March, 1966, Stokely, and I'm adding some favorites that feel right and that I have researched to death over the years: Virginia Durr, Ruby Doris Smith, NOW, Bob Zellner, voter registration in the Delta, Greenwood, maybe Alabama, hmmm....

I have chronicled this decision on facebook, here (scroll down a bit; what affirming, supportive comments), and I may keep going there, for short updates, and on twitter, so you can follow along there if you like, although I will always come back to the blog to keep a record of my progress -- and process.

Yesterday, I opened up the old file again, the one that's not working. What can I use from it? Can I use more than I thought? Now that I have this new beginning... maybe. So I renamed it "1966  CAN THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS." ha!

My husband surprised me with a copy of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. Already I see parallels between that story and the civil rights movement -- can I use this in some way? It's been decades since I read The Good Earth -- why did it come floating into my consciousness as I awoke? I trust that there is a message here. I will stay with it, and see what comes.

I'm trying hard not to get into the what was I THINKING? place of despair with this new story, and to just go with it. Maybe I will end up melding one draft with another. Maybe it's going to be much SIMPLER than I thought, in some ways. Maybe not. But I am in the very thicket of revision and rewriting now, and need to stay with it, stay with it, stay with it. I owe book two as soon as I'm able to release it back into my editor's hands for another go-round. We've agreed on Labor Day Weekend and again in November at NCTE. So I've got -- what? Seven weeks until Labor Day? And I'll need to send it soon. Let's say six weeks.

The pressure is coming from me. "Take the time you need to take," my editor says. I will. But I will also move forward steadily. I'm going to try something new (and old; each novel has its own trajectory, so I have tried some of everything, from time to time, it seems). I plan to suit up and show up EVERY DAY and -- like a professional writer -- direct this story to come to me.

Let's see what happens. Send me lifelines now and then. I'll need 'em.