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Back to Work: 5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

Back to Work:  5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

(For the 5 challenges, scroll down.)

It’s hard to believe that today my daughter is eight weeks old. It’s also hard to believe that many mothers are back to work full time by now. I cannot imagine.

Actually, I CAN imagine, and it seems awful. It’s still rare that I get more than two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, and I’m often up for hours in the middle of the night to feed, diaper, and soothe her. If I had to be at work at 8 am with a one-hour commute (that’s what I did when I worked full time), I’d be waking by 5 every morning to get myself and the baby ready for the day. I’d get home at 6, so I don’t know when I’d have time to cook dinner, do the laundry, play with the baby, or hang out with my husband. And don’t get me started on how annoying it would be to pump at work. I feel both great admiration and great sympathy for full-time working mothers of infants.

Although I haven’t gone back to either of my paying jobs yet (except for Skype tutoring once a week), I’m trying to get back to my writing work. There’s a Work in Progress grant I plan to apply for, and the application deadline is March 31. All I need to do is make a few light revisions in my manuscript, write a synopsis, and polish up the first 10 pages for submittal. But you’d be amazed how long these tasks are taking me. I do most of my work with a baby strapped to me, bouncing her as I type to keep her pacified. In fact, that’s how I’m writing this blog right now!

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This is me and the baby right now.  Shh, she’s sleeping to the sound of my keyboard typing!

 

The first six weeks of Baby’s life I didn’t do any writing except this blog, but I did do some manuscript swapping with other writers. I got feedback on my draft from a few people, and I gave feedback to a few writer friends. I managed to read one full manuscript for my friend Bethany, often while breastfeeding. Ironically, hers is a novel written as diary entries, which is the format of my manuscript as well!  (Check out Bethany’s blog here!)

Writing a novel as a series of diary entries is great in a lot of ways. As Bethany pointed out to me, it can help you fully realize your main character’s voice. It’s also a good way to explore the protagonist’s emotions AND to keep the story in the present moment – both of which tend to be important in YA and Middle Grade books, and that is what both Bethany and I are writing.

But, as I read Bethany’s manuscript and began to review my own, I realized that there are some challenges to the diary format as well.

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Hard to get much work done with this little babe!

5 CHALLENGES TO WRITING A NOVEL IN DIARY FORMAT:

  1. Readers must suspend disbelief.

Most people don’t keep diaries. Those that do don’t often write extensive, frequent entries. And chances are, in order to tell a good story, your protagonist is going to do just that. She is going to include full scenes with description and dialogue instead of just telling briefly what happened.

Your job as a writer is to make both the voice and the story so engaging that the reader doesn’t stop to wonder whether the character would really take the time to write all of this in her diary.

 

  1. It’s difficult to include backstory and explanations.

If a character is writing a diary, she is essentially writing something for herself. Therefore, why would she need to tell herself about something that happened in the past? Instead she might write, “my visit to Grandma’s was just as bad as last time,” without going into detail about what happened last time. After all, she already knows. Perhaps she even wrote about it previously in her journal. She also might not take the time to fully describe people or places. Why would she bother to describe to her diary her mother’s appearance, or what her bedroom looks like?

Your job as a writer is to find a way to tell the story vividly while still staying true to the diary-style format. One way to get around this challenge is to write an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) instead of diary entries. If your character is writing to another person, it makes sense that she would do more explaining and describing.

One book that finds a way to overcome this challenge is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s essentially a diary-style novel, but the entries are written as letters that the main character sends to an anonymous person. Here’s the very first page:

Dear friend,

I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.

So that’s one way to do it.

 

  1. Grammar and style gets tricky.

If your protagonist is a teen or preteen, are you going to write the way a kid that age would actually write? Well, yes and no. You don’t want to include all the spelling and grammatical mistakes your protagonist would likely make in real life because that would make for annoying reading. Instead, you’re going to write using the rules of the English language and find other ways (word choice, sentence style, content, etc.) to make the diary seem realistic.

You can make your own decisions, but chances are you’re going to indent your paragraphs and use quotation marks for dialogue. Chances are you’re not going to use ten exclamation points even though that’s what a real teenager writing in a diary might do. In the same way that you shouldn’t write dialogue exactly the way people speak (with all the “ums” and “likes”) you also don’t need the entries to be exactly the way your character would write them.  After all, this is a work of fiction.  You’re not trying to replicate a teenager’s diary; you’re simply using the diary as a device to tell a story.

There are plenty of ways to make the diary feel real without resorting to misspelled words, all-caps, and ovelry-exuberant punctuation.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is scattered throughout with cartoons that have been drawn by the narrator and look like they have been taped into the book.  In Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, the narrator, teenage movie buff and aspiring director Greg Gaines, writes out scenes of his life as if they are screenplays. In this way, Alexie and Andrews give their books a unique “diary feel” without breaking grammar rules.

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From The Absolutey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  (Illustrations by Ellen Forney)

 

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An excerpt from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.  Note that Andrews follows the appropriate style guidelines for screenplays!

 

  1. Tense can get tricky.  

When you’re writing a diary style novel, you have to think about when your character is sitting down to write these entries. Is she writing about what happened that day or yesterday? Is she writing once a week about the whole week? She might be feeling a certain way right now (present tense) about something that happened yesterday (past tense) or something that’s going to happen tomorrow (future tense).

This challenge isn’t too hard to manage, but, what if you want your character to be more reflective about her experiences; what if you want her to be making some realizations that she might not make in the moment? Or, what if it’s unrealistic that your character would have been chronicling things on a day to day basis? Maybe she didn’t have time.  Maybe she didn’t realize until after the fact that something big and important was happening to her. Maybe, instead of writing diary entries, she could instead be looking back from a certain vantage point and writing about an important time in her life.

Of course, if you’re writing YA or Middle Grade, the narrator in this case should still be young and looking back on something that happened fairly recently. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart both do this. In The Catcher and Rye, for example, Holden is writing an account of the recent past: “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”

Anyway, this is a good alternative to the diary-entry style.

 

  1. Diary entries lend themselves to telling instead of showing.

Think about how you might have written a diary entry as an angsty teen. Something like this, perhaps:

Oh my god, I HATE Linda right now. She is being such a BITCHY BITCH!!!!!! She told EVERYBODY at the bus stop I wasn’t wearing deodorant, and they all laughed at me and called me a stinky pig. I’m seriously not talking to her anymore. She SUUUUCKS and is officially no longer my friend!!!!!!!!

You see what I mean? First of all, I don’t think I’d want to read a whole book like that, riddled with excessive explanation points.  Secondly, in most books, this would be a scene, right? We’d be at the bus stop with Linda and the protagonist. We’d get a little description of the other kids. We’d get the dialogue of what exactly was said. We’d be SHOWN the bitchiness of Linda instead of being told about it. Although it’s fine to have some telling in a diary-style novel, you really have to include scenes and dialogue.

In essence, when writing in this style, you have to continually walk the line of making it seem like a diary, yet making it an engaging story.  Not easy to do.

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Should I write my novel as diary entries?  Hmm, let me think about it…

 

In fact, I think Bethany has decided to do away with diary-style for her novel.  She says it helped her find her character’s voice, but now she’s going to tell the story in first-person past tense, no diary entries necessary.

As for me, I’m sticking with diary entries for now.  I got the idea for this novel by reading over some of my own ninth grade diary entries, and I fell in love with how open and vulnerable and emotional and often hilarious (sometimes unintentionally) I was when writing for myself.  I wanted to write a story that had a similar tone.  Will I succeed?  Only time will tell!

Wish me luck getting together my submission for the Work in Progress grant, and wish me luck getting this little baby to sleep at night!

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Baby loves to sleep on Mommy!

 

Siren Sisters by Dana Langer (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

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Siren Sisters by Dana Langer (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

SIREN SISTERS by Dana Langer

published by Aladdin, January 2017

suggested age range: 9 – 13

SUMMARY:

A soon-to-be siren finds herself responsible for the lives of her sisters–and the fisherman they curse–in this haunting debut novel.

Lolly Salt has three beautiful sisters. When they’re not in school or running their small town’s diner, they’re secretly luring ships to their doom from the cliffs of Starbridge Cove, Maine. With alluring voices that twelve-year-old Lolly has yet to grow into, the Salt sisters do the work mandated by the Sea Witch, a glamorously frightening figure determined to keep the girls under her control. With their mother dead after a mysterious car accident, and their father drowning in grief, the sisters carry on with their lives and duties until a local sea captain gets suspicious about the shipwrecks.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Death of a parent, grief, the environment, making choices

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Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf discussions here.

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I almost gave up on this book because I was reading too many things at once, and I wasn’t totally hooked by the first two chapters.  I’m SO glad I stuck with it though.  Around chapter three it really turned a corner, and I loved it after that.  In fact, I texted you as soon as I finished it and told you it was a MUST READ.

Eva:  I felt the opposite — I was drawn in almost immediately!  Maybe because I loved the setting:  a quaint and quirky New England sea town that holds an annual folk festival and is seeped in the legends and history of its colonial days.  In some ways Starbridge Cove felt like a real, specific place, and yet it in other ways the town had a mystical quality that made the sea witch and the existence of sirens seem believable.

Meagan:  Let’s talk about the sea witch!  She is first introduced in chapter three.  Prior to her introduction, we’ve only been told that Lolly is becoming a siren and her sisters are sirens but none of that felt tangible to me until the witch came on the scene.  From that point on, the whole story was a rich and complicated tapestry with threads coming together from hundreds of years of the town’s history, cultures from all over the world, and the interplay and of many complex characters.  I often find myself drawn to complex stories, and this definitely fit the bill.

Eva:  Yes, one of my favorite things was how the town’s history and the ancestors of some of the characters played into the story.  (There’s an old diary, for example, that I couldn’t get enough of.)  I, too, loved the complexity of the sea witch — she was a great character who winds up being both an enemy and a friend.

She also has some of the best lines in the book:  

She narrows her eyes.  “Young man, ‘witch’ is in the eye of the beholder.  It’s just a name… Let’s not talk of witches and thieves and try to figure out who is or isn’t crazy.  That’s nearly always a waste of time.”

Meagan:  I wonder about Dana Langer’s earlier drafts.  The story and characters were so complicated, I imagine this book could easily have been twice as long.  I’m curious if her first draft was enormous and then she edited it down a lot.  For so many characters and subplots we get just the tiniest taste of what’s going on and the rest is left to the imagination of the reader.  I don’t find this to be very common, but I really thought it worked.  It was like the opposite of over-writing.  I guess that’s called “trusting your reader.”

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Siren Sisters is Langer’s debut novel.

Eva:  I agree.  I thought she did a great  job with pacing.  I wasn’t always 100% on board with some of her plotting choices (for example it’s a little too easy for Lolly to get the info she needs from the sea witch), but from the middle of the book on the stakes were high and the tension was mounting.  

Meagan:  For such a multi-faceted story, it managed to move along pretty quickly.  Near the end, as the pace picked up, I found myself noticing these truncated scenes where whatever the main action was occurred and then the narrative just skipped straight to the next scene with practically no transition.  The author didn’t waste any time describing how the characters got from place to place or what happened along the way.  I don’t think I’d want a whole book to be paced like this, but for the climactic section, I was okay with it.  

Eva:  Although I thought the action-packed second half was done well, I was disappointed by the ending.  It ended rather abruptly (in my opinion) and left some major things unanswered. I wonder if there might be a sequel…

I more enjoyed reading about Lolly’s everyday life in the first half of the book, where she is trying to balance being a normal middle schooler with becoming a siren.  She comes to school late and is always tired and disorganized (because she was out late with her sisters causing shipwrecks).  She hopes no one will notice the scales that are starting to grow on the bottoms of her feet or the way her hair is changing color.  She wonders if her best friend Jason will still like her when he finds out that she’s really a monster.  I thought this was so relatable for middle school kids who are going through their own changes at this age.  (Turning into a teenager is sort of like becoming a mythical beast, right?)  

Another thing I loved was Jason’s “evil” stepdad, Mr. Bergstrom.  He was probably the most farcical character in the book, but I didn’t mind.  His comedic obsession with his own Viking heritage and his creepy comments towards Jason’s mother made him very a specific bad guy.  

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Meagan:  Yeah, he was an interesting and funny villain.  I loved that there were actually two “bad guys” operating against each other, and really, the main character is a “bad guy” in her own right.  Absolutely no one in the story is totally innocent or 100% good, but you still root for Lolly and want things to get better for her.

Eva:  I agree.  When I first heard about this story, I was skeptical.  How could the protagonist be a siren?  Aren’t sirens bad?  But this book explores the gray areas.  The sea witch and her sirens are protecting the ocean and its sealife from commercial fishers… but they are hurting people in the process.  It’s an interesting take on an old myth.  

Meagan:  Speaking of old myths, I noticed that this book came out right around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.  I haven’t had a chance to read that one yet, but apparently it’s flying off the shelves.  Gaiman has a huge fan-base of both adult and kid readers, so maybe some kids who are newly hooked on mythology will find their way to Siren Sisters.  I hope so!

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  This is an adult book, but it reminds me of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Both books explore how historical wrongdoing can have a lasting impact on a community, and both books involve the use of magic to attempt to change those consequences.  

Eva:  It reminded me of an Alice Hoffman novel.  Hoffman (author of Practical Magic and many others) often writes about quaint and quirky New England towns steeped in history, legend, and magic.  She apparently writes middle grade and young adult novels as well, although I’ve only read her books for adults.    

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A specific setting
  • Trusting the reader
  • Keeping a complicated story to a reasonable length
  • Fast pacing of a complicated story
  • Great (and complex) villains
  • A story that explores ethical gray areas

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A magical and specific setting, two complex villains, and a relatable protagonist come together in this fast-paced yet richly-woven tale.   

Meagan:  I can imagine coming back to this book for writerly guidance on telling a complex story in the simplest and shortest possible way.

I’m Writing This While the Baby Sleeps

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I’m Writing This While the Baby Sleeps

Last Thursday, my husband and I talked to the new crop of students in the Bradley Method Birth Class that we attended when I was pregnant.

“Birth is the easy part,” I told them. “It’s everything after that’s hard.”

That night, the baby proved my point by refusing to sleep from midnight until six a.m. In our dark bedroom with the white noise machine blaring, I would nurse her and bounce her on the exercise ball until I thought she was asleep, but the moment I’d stand from the ball, she would startle awake and cry piercingly until I did more nursing and bouncing. Things went on in this manner (with some diaper changes thrown in for good measure) until the first rays of dawn appeared, when she finally fell asleep on my chest, and I drifted into an exhausted one-hour slumber.

On Friday, she slept for most of the day. She slept in the baby k’tan with Daddy in the morning (he was working from home, thank god, so I was able to snag an hour of sleep in bed), and then in the afternoon she slept on me while I slept on the couch.

My husband and I were worried that we’d let her sleep too much and she wasn’t going to sleep come nighttime. We were right to worry. Friday night I was again nursing and bouncing for hours. Not only would she not sleep in her bassinet, she wouldn’t even sleep in the bed with me. She dozed for a few fifteen- minute intervals on my chest, so that’s when I slept, too.

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Daytime nap with baby.

 

By Saturday, my husband and I knew we had to do something differently. We decided to be stricter about both a bedtime routine a daytime nap routine. We also decided to limit the amount of time she spent sleeping on us. From now on, for at least two naps per day we would swaddle her and put her in the bedroom bassinet with the white noise machine going. That way, she would make the association that swaddle plus white noise plus bassinet equals sleep.

And, so far, this new routine seems to be working! Not perfectly, mind you. She did, for example, cry inconsolably from 7pm to 9:30pm on Sunday night and it often takes upwards of an hour and a half to get her to bed. BUT she has also been sleeping IN her bassinet for chunks of the night. (And by that I mean for an average of two hours at a time. It still takes me about an hour in between those intervals to get her fed, diapered, and comforted, but still, I’m not complaining –BELIEVE ME, I’m not complaining!)

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Me and the little bae.

 

The baby has also started taking naps in her bassinet during the day. If she settles into some sort of napping pattern soon, it means that I can start to get into a routine myself. It might look something like this:

  • Early morning nap: Eva eats breakfast, takes a shower, and tidies the house
  • Late morning nap: Eva eats lunch and puts dinner in the crockpot
  • Early afternoon nap: Eva responds to email and/or takes a nap herself
  • Late afternoon nap: Eva does chores and/or some living room yoga

Where does writing fit into this routine? Well, I haven’t figured that out yet.

Up until the baby was born, I had a routine for my writing. I would sit down at my tidy desk in my office by 9am with a steaming cup of tea and usually a bit of chocolate. I’d work on writing until I got hungry for lunch around noon. It was ingrained in me: morning plus my desk plus a cup of tea equals writing. Unfortunately, that meant I had trouble getting myself to write at any other time of day. I had trouble writing if I wasn’t at home alone, if my desk wasn’t tidy, or if I didn’t have a cup of tea and something sweet to eat.

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My writing routine pre-baby:  a quiet morning, a clean desk, a cup of tea.

 

As I’m getting my baby into a stricter routine and getting her to make helpful associations, I’m loosening my own routines and associations. From now on I have to snag writing time whenever I can – morning, noon, or night. I have to learn to write wherever I am and whatever the conditions (especially since my office now doubles as the nursery and my desk is currently a neatnik’s nightmare). I don’t have the luxury to be so particular anymore; I will have to write whether or not I have time to make myself a cup of tea.

People always say, “sleep when your baby sleeps,” and I will do that, but I  will try to write a little, too.

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She’s such a little angel when she’s sleeping!

You Can’t See All the Parades

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You Can’t See All the Parades

For most of the country, yesterday was just another Tuesday, but in New Orleans and surrounding areas, it was Mardi Gras. I should know because my facebook feed is currently filled with pictures of my New Orleans friends whooping it up on the parade route.

A lot of people don’t realize this, but Carnival season officially begins on Twelfth Night (The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6) and lasts until the day before Ash Wednesday.

I lived in New Orleans for six years, and Mardi Gras parades there begin several weekends before Fat Tuesday. Parades roll the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights before the big day, and both daytime and nighttime parades abound on Saturday and Sunday. There are more parades Monday evening (Lundi Gras), followed by a full schedule on Mardi Gras Day, starting with Zulu, which rolls bright and early at 8 a.m.

I remember one year trying to rally for Zulu even though I was running on two hours of sleep and had either a hangover (and a sore throat from shouting), or what was the beginning of a terrible cold. I concocted myself a drink I called my “Mardi Gras Magical Mixture,” which consisted of Emergen-C, Diet Mountain Dew (for the caffeine), and vodka. Then I put on my costume and headed to the Quarter.

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Here I am with a toilet on Mardi Gras Day in the French Quarter.  (2009, I believe.)

 

After living in New Orleans for a few years, I realized that I didn’t need to go to every single parade. The smart thing to do was to save energy for my favorites (Muses, Thoth, Bacchus), and make sure I had enough stamina to make it through Mardi Gras Day.

But that’s easier said than done, especially because, for the last three years of my New Orleans life, I lived one block off the parade route. I would be in my apartment, trying to read or write or organize my closet, when I’d hear the sounds of high school marching bands and jubilant cheering. Anxiety would strike: people were having fun without me!  I was missing out on potentially cool floats! Half the time, I couldn’t stand the thought of missing out, so I’d pull on a coat, pour a cocktail in a to-go cup, and head out to Saint Charles Avenue to whoop it up with everyone else.

This is probably the reason why I, without fail, came down with terrible post-Mardi-Gras illnesses every single year. You can’t do it all, and when you try, your body tends to rebel.

 

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Saturday before Mardi Gras.  (2010, I believe.)

 

Now that I’m in my thirties, I’m much more okay with missing out on fun. In fact, I usually prefer staying at home reading to whooping it up out on the town. But I sometimes still suffer from the desire to want to do it all.

Currently, my baby is five weeks old and requires a lot of attention (and rightly so!), which means the amount of time I have to do other things is quite limited. I have a stack of books I want to read. I have stories I want to write. I have projects I want to complete. I have all these postnatal yoga classes and crybaby movies I want to attend.  And sometimes I feel frustrated when a day goes by and all I’ve managed to accomplish is feeding and bathing myself and the baby.

But the thing is, you can’t do it all, nor should you even try.  I’ll never read all the books I want to read.  I’ll probably only attend a fraction of the baby-and-me yoga classes the DC area has to offer.  And that’s okay.

You can’t pursue every idea either, which can be hard for us creative-types to understand. New ideas are exciting (so bright and shiny!), but chances are high that I won’t be able to write every book or story I’ve ever thought about writing. Better to focus my energy on the strongest ideas (or the ones I feel strongest about) than to chase every single thought that goes marching through my brain.

Just because you can’t do it all, doesn’t mean you can’t do something worthwhile.  For now, I’m going to stay home with my baby and enjoy the small parade of miracles she performs for me every day.  And if I get to sneak in a few minutes of reading or writing or whooping it up every now and then — well, all the better!

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My little bae.

 

A Sleeping Baby, A Finished Manuscript

A Sleeping Baby, A Finished Manuscript

Today my daughter is one month old, and I’m exhausted.

The other night, I had just drifted off to sleep when the baby woke up. Of course I’m used to this by now. She only sleeps for two-hour stretches, so she wakes up multiple times in the night.

Before she could get into full-force crying mode, I pulled her from her bedside bassinet and nursed her. Then I woke up my husband and sent him off to change her diaper while I used the bathroom, refilled my water glass, and changed out of my sweat-soaked pajamas. (Why, by the way, does no one tell you about post-partum night sweats? They’re the worst!)

I re-swaddled the little bae and nursed her until she got sleepy. Then I rocked her in my arms until her limbs went slack and it appeared she had fallen asleep. I gently deposited her in her bassinet, tucked her blanket around her, and counted to fifty before oh-so-agonizingly-slowly slipping my hand away from her soft little head in hopes that she wouldn’t realize she was no longer nestled safe in Mommy’s arms. I rocked the bassinet for a few minutes for good measure, and it seemed like she was fast asleep.

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Baby in her swaddle.

 

Relieved, I flopped back into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin, excited to get another two hours of sleep. That’s when I heard the baby grunt. I stayed put, hoping she was making noises in her sleep. But no, now she was starting to whine and thrash. I sat up in bed and grabbed the side of the bassinet, hoping I could just rock her back to sleep. But soon enough her little eyes popped open, and her face screwed with displeasure. I tried slipping a pacifier between her lips, but she wouldn’t take it, and she let out a giant, heartbreaking wail.

“It’s okay, little baby,” I crooned while my husband moaned in his sleep. I picked her up and started to nurse her again. I went through the whole routine – nurse, rock, put in the bassinet, rock some more. But again, mere minutes after I lay her down, she started to cry.

On the third try, I held her in one arm, and with my free hand I checked my email on my phone. One of my emails turned out to be feedback from a beta reader who had just read the most recent draft of my novel. She had some good things to say about it, but she also pointed out many flaws and gave me suggestions for improvement. She had showed me some very real problems, and I was grateful for that, but the email also made me feel tired. I was going to have to start all over  with the novel, giving it a total revision from head to toe.

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Little bae is very good at sleeping during the day!

 

As I rocked the baby in my arms, wondering if she was deep enough asleep to not notice a transfer into the bassinet, it occurred to me that getting a newborn back to sleep isn’t so different from revising a novel. Just when you think you’re done, you have to start all over again from the very beginning. It’s time consuming, it’s tiring… and yet, you love this baby of yours, whether it be a book baby or a human one, and somehow you find the patience not to throw it out the window.

Annoying as revisions may be, I’m looking forward to having the time and energy to revise this novel.  I know it might take awhile, and I know I this might not be the last revision, but it’s my baby.

Finally, the human baby was fast asleep in my arms. I gently placed her in the bassinet and had begun to move my hands away from her head a fraction of an inch at a time when a loud, wet, squelching sound came from her behind. And then another. A moment later, her eyes blinked open and she began to wail. I woke up my husband and sent him off to do yet another diaper change. It was two a.m., and I could tell we were in for a long night.

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Me and the little bae.

 

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso

Published by Clarion Books, September 2016

Suggested age range:  10 – 12

 

SUMMARY:

Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people.

But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?  

 An exciting new voice in contemporary middle grade, Mike Grosso creates a determined heroine readers will identify with and cheer for.

-from Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:

Communication.  It can be difficult to express what you’re really feeling or what’s really going on with you in a way that others can understand, BUT it’s necessary in order to be fully yourself and to participate fully in relationships with people you care about.

 

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Eva & Meagan.  You can read more of our middle grad book reviews here.

 

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There are a lot of things to like in this book.  I like that Sam is a strong female protagonist who wants to play the drums — despite the fact that she gets made fun of for her interest.  I like that we learn a lot throughout the book about the specifics of drumming.  (This would be a great book for a kid who is interested in drumming or percussion.)  I like that Sam has to work hard to get what she wants and that things don’t end perfectly — very realistic.  

 

Meagan: I enjoyed this book, too.  On a purely personal note: I was once a middle school girl in the percussion section of concert band.  Sam’s experience of it as a “boys’ club” as well as the goofing-off-antics that occur back there definitely rang true to me.  Unlike Sam, however, I really didn’t care about drumming or practice very much.  It wasn’t my thing.  But it’s neat to read from the perspective of someone who thinks differently than you and has her own unique passion.  I appreciate the showing-not-telling Mike Grosso has done to help me get into Sam’s head. Instead of just telling us that she wants to be a drummer, he shows how she has rhythms running through her head all the time and observes the world around her through the lens of drumming.  

 

Eva:  This is Mike Grosso’s first novel, and it seems like he crafted it in the way all the advice books and blogs suggest.  He starts with a very clear inciting incident (Sam’s school is getting rid of the music program!) and a very clear desire (Sam wants to take drum lessons, but her parents won’t let her!)  Sam takes action, but a series of roadblocks keep getting in her way.  Things go from bad to worse until we get to the climax and the “core emotional experience.”  The structure of this novel is exactly what agents tell writers they want a novel to be.  

 

Meagan:  Yep, I agree.  Mike Grosso gets a gold star for textbook execution of how to plot a middle grade novel.  

 

Eva:  Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much about how to write MG books, but it was sometimes too easy for me to see the innerworkings of the plot and predict what would happen next.  I doubt a younger reader would pick up on this, but I do wonder if the book will hold the attention of kids who are not so interested in drumming.   

 

Meagan:  I think what he did works (it kept my attention, and I feel sure there are kids who will enjoy this book), but the plot is not the wow-factor here.  It’s very effective, but not surprising or intriguing really.  I think character, rather than plot, is his strength in this book.  We get a window into the mind of a person who has a musical way of thinking.

 

Eva:  Right.  The book actually has a metaphor for that “window” into Sam’s head.  Sam starts out the book by wishing she had a headphone jack in her head:

“With a headphone jack in your head, you could let anyone plug right in and listen to your thoughts, especially the complicated stuff… I want people to understand me when I can’t say what’s on my mind.”  

It’s a cute idea and shows up throughout the book as a very obvious theme.  At the end of the book, Sam sums everything up by going back to her favorite metaphor:

“…I love drums.  It might not be the headphone jack in my head I’ve always wanted, but it’s kind of the same thing when you think about it.  It lets you say something you can’t express any other way.”

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Meagan:  The other thing that I think this author does well regarding character development is get me to identify with a basically sympathetic main character and then lead me down a slippery ethical slope as she does more and more wrong things in pursuit of her goals.  Even though some of her actions are pretty bad and things I would not have done as a kid, I totally believe that she does them, and I get why.  Believable motivation can be a difficult thing to nail, so I went back to the book to try and pick apart what he is doing to achieve it.  

One of Sam’s early wrong decisions is deleting a phone message intended for her parents.  As she listens to the message from the school administrator she worries about how her dad will react.

“–oh man, you don’t want him mad.  You lose pretty much every privilege you can imagine, even if it’s only a little bit your fault.  Even if you just lost control for a split second.  Even if you felt totally humiliated.”

So we’ve got both emotion and rationalizing here.  But she doesn’t go right for deleting the message.  She thinks through her options.

“I pull the phone away from my ear and try to come up with a way to explain this to my dad…”

And then before she takes action, the voicemail system gives her a prompt she can act on without thinking.

“‘Press nine to delete this message.’

My hand shakes, but I slowly bring my index finger down.  It lands on the number nine.

In the moment of action she’s trying to distance herself from the action by describing her finger as the actor.

“I hang up the phone and run back upstairs, trying to forget the message ever existed, because as far as anyone besides me or Dr. Pullman knows, it never really did.”

More rationalizing and distancing.    

I think it can be tempting as a writer to describe your character taking big actions and making big decisions, just assuming that your readers will get where your character is emotionally or why a person might do something like that.  I know I have been guilty of that at times–just assuming it’s obvious.  And it is a fine line.  No reader wants too much explanation.  But I think Mike Grosso does a good job bringing us along for the ride with Sam’s bad decisions by using her interior voice.  He provides both the rationalization and the emotional basis for her choices and we get to be in her head and she makes them.

 

Eva:  That’s a really good point.  In previous posts we’ve talked about how interiority — a character’s interior thoughts — can really help us understand character motivation, and this book does a great job of that.  

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Author Mike Grosso is a musician and a 4th grade teacher.  Here is his author website.

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  When I was a kid there was a time when I was obsessed with Olympic gymnasts and wanted to be one, despite the fact I wasn’t even taking gymnastics lessons.  There was this very short novel (I can’t remember the name of it) that I used to read obsessively when I was about eight years old.  It was about a girl gymnast.  I couldn’t tell you anything else about the book, and I don’t think there was very much to it other than her challenges on the balance beam.  And yet I LOVED it because I loved gymnastics.  

I can see kids who are interested in playing the drums (or playing in a band) being interested in I Am Drums in the same way I loved that gymnastics book as a kid.   

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A clear inciting incident and character desire.
  • A main character who takes action to get what she wants
  • Strong use of interior voice (interiority) to ground character motives
  • A character with a unique way of thinking

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A sweet and well-executed book though it did not quite knock my socks off.  On the other hand, if I Am Drums encourages any little girls out there to become rad female drummers like Patty Schemel or Meg White, I’m ALL ABOUT IT!  

Meagan:  In realistic fiction (like this book), the escapism aspect of reading relies heavily on character.  There’s no magical fantasy world for your reader to get lost in.  Instead, use your character’s unique interior voice to invite your reader to get lost in the mind of a person different from him or herself.   

 

Our Birth Story: Timing is Everything

Our Birth Story:  Timing is Everything

I wasn’t expecting her to come early. My due date was February 4th, and I’d been told that first babies always come late. I planned on having a few more weeks to polish up a draft of my current manuscript, not to mention to make freezer meals and organize the nursery.

My husband and I were planning on having a home birth, and everything with my pregnancy was normal and healthy. But then, about a month before the due date, my feet started getting itchy. Like, really itchy. It was so bad I couldn’t sleep. One night, while not sleeping, and with cold packs wrapped around my feet for relief, I googled “itchy feet during pregnancy.”

Turns out, itchy feet is one of the only symptoms of a very rare and very serious condition called cholestasis of pregnancy in which the pregnancy hormones cause the mother’s liver and gallbladder to stop functioning properly. It can cause severe problems for the fetus, including death.

Naturally, I freaked out and called my midwife the next morning. She told me cholestasis was extremely rare but I should get tested to make sure. So I went to get my blood drawn.

Unfortunately, Labcorp botched my first blood draw, and I had to go back for a second time two days later. They then took their sweet time (nearly four days) getting the results back.

“If they hadn’t messed up my blood work the first time, we’d know by now,” I grumbled to Paul. I’d convinced myself that I didn’t have cholestasis and that everything was fine, but I still wanted to know for sure. The cure for cholestasis is delivery, so if the blood work came back positive, I would likely go to the hospital to be induced, thus putting an end to our dream of an intervention-free birth at home.

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I didn’t make it past 38 weeks…

 

Well, to make a long story slightly shorter, guess when I found out that I DID have the beginning stages of cholestasis… About twenty minutes after my water broke!

“It looks like your body is taking care of business on its own,” the midwife said when we called her. Then she came over to talk to us about our options.

She told us it would probably be fine to have the baby at home, but cholestasis is so rare that in her twenty-five years of practice, she’d only ever had one other patient with the condition, and the outcome had not been great. “There’s not a lot of information about it out there,” she said, showing us an article in a medical journal that had only managed to round up thirteen cholestasis patients for the study. “I think, to be safe, you should go to the hospital where they can give you an external fetal monitor.”

“When should we leave?” Paul asked. “Should we take showers first?” (Everything we’d read about labor stressed the importance of not going to the hospital too soon.)

She gave him a strange look. “Um, I think you should go right now.”

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Here I am having a contraction in the squatting position.

 

So we headed to George Washington University hospital in downtown DC, which has a midwife practice within the hospital. And we brought Kathy, one of our home birth midwives, with us to be our doula. By the time we arrived and got checked in, my contractions had gone from mostly painless to the worst period cramps ever. Baby was on the way!!

It was a bit annoying being in the hospital. (The room was cold, they made me get an IV port, and the nurse had to adjust the fetal monitor every five seconds – often while I was having a contraction.) But otherwise, it wasn’t too different from home. We listened to music and dimmed the lights and Kathy suggested different positions. The GW midwife left us alone for the most part to labor in private.

We labored all night and into the morning – for about ten hours – and then I was ready to push. “The NICU team is going to come in,” the nurse told me. “But as long as they hear the baby cry, they won’t take her away. They just want to make sure she’s healthy and then they’ll leave you both alone.”

So there I was, pushing out a baby with Kathy, Paul, the midwife, two nurses, the NICU doctor, and a handful of medical students standing around watching.

“Um, how long is this going to take?” the NICU doctor asked. “Should we come back later?”

That’s when I gave a final grunting push, and my daughter (all 6 pounds 13 ounces of her) was born. The nurses placed her on my chest, and she looked up at me, cooing. Only a few minutes old, and she was so alert! It hadn’t happened like we planned, but it had happened all the same. And I can still hardly believe it. Two weeks later, I still look at her from time to time and say “I have a baby. This is my baby and I love her so much.”

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Baby is only a few minutes old here!

 

I keep telling people that the birth was the best possible hospital scenario – no drugs, no interventions. We got to have the birth we wanted, just in a different location.

And weirdly, I owe it all to Labcorp’s incompetence. If they had gotten the lab results back in a timely manner, I probably would have gone to the hospital for an induction, and my birth story would be totally different.

It reminds me that sometimes the things that seem like annoyances, setbacks, failures, or heartbreaks become the things we are thankful for in hindsight.

I lost my literary agent a while back, and I’ve had trouble finding a new one.  At times it feels like a major setback for my writing career, but I’m hoping that hindsight will prove it was a good thing after all: I’ll realize he wasn’t the right agent for me, or that it’s better in the long run that this new manuscript I’m working on be my debut novel. I’ll realize it was all in the timing, and that it just wasn’t the right time for me to be published.

As my daughter proved to me, timing is everything, and in the end it doesn’t so much matter when or where or how something important happens, just that it happens at all.

 

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2 weeks old