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Poetry defined
This is what I have committed to completing by tomorrow. Mind you, this has been on my to-do list for something like six months now, and I have already spent hours and hours and hours over days and weeks and months on it.

Here's what I have figured out about it.

1. There's a certain amount of hubris to pulling together a chapbook. I mean, you have to assume that somebody might want to read it, right? And who am I to go about thinking I'm good enough to be read? (Hmm . . . maybe this should be there's a certain amount of self-loathing to pulling together a chapbook?) I feel like I'm constantly having to get past my own self in order to commence work on the project at all. Nevertheless, I push on.

2. I have to pick and choose among my own work. This is difficult, because, of course, on any given day I may like (or loathe) every single poem I've ever written. Also, on the one hand I am trying to select my best work, and on the other hand:

  I am thinking that the poems that I consider my BEST work that haven't been published yet ought to get submitted to journals first, where odds favor them being repeatedly rejected, but still, sometimes poems get accepted

  I am thinking that a chapbook made up entirely of poems that have already been published someplace wouldn't be that interesting

  I can't always figure out which are my best poems, although I have my suspicions

  I have poems that I am especially fond of, which may not actually be my "best" poems, that I kind of want to include

  poems that seem perfect one day and therefore must be included don't appeal to me after I've let the collection sit for a while

  my chapbook is supposed to be, say, around twenty pages, and I have only picked 12 poems for it; or, conversely, I have picked 37, and can't seem to decide which of those ought to go in the collection and which ones ought to go back in the file

  other stuff and bother

  some or all of the above.

3. Why bother? I might get rejected even after all this to-and-fro-ing. And I might not.

4. Once I have selected the poems that I think ought to be in the collection, I have to put them in some sort of order. Suddenly, I realize that I have 14 wry or humorous poems and four that are super-heavy, sad poems (or some other, similar conundrum) and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to intersperse things without seeming unhinged or, worse, creating an expectation that "this is what these poems are like", which turns out to be a false one, but it's too late, people already put the collection down and walked away. So I take some out and put some other ones in and start over. Or I put the whole thing down and slowly back away.

Or I figure out that some things go together, subject-matter wise or thematically or whatever, but not all of the poems work that way, and then I have to figure out what to do about it. At this point, I resort to pulling down various and sundry chapbooks from my bookshelf, to see how they were organized, and then I fall into reading the poems again, because they are there, and my, they are so very good - are mine anywhere near this good? - and then I start rocking quietly, wondering why it is that I thought this was a good idea anyhow?

5. There is no "right" answer. This is what I've finally figured out, after spending the past two months repeating the actions in the previous two paragraphs. Today, I'm resolved to push past/through it and arrive at an order. Then it's on to the next step . . .

6. A chapbook needs a title. Of course it does. And as many writers will tell you, coming up with titles is hard. Books should be written on the topic, but as far as I can tell, they haven't been. A common practice is to pick the title of one poem from the collection to stand as the title for the work. Even Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, and Mary Oliver do this. Probably I will do this, too. But did I mention that it's hard? Which one title speaks for the collection as a whole? Speaks for me as a poet? I guess eventually I will pick one that seems best (or least bad) and go with it.

7. As has already become evident to you if you've read this far, there's a lot of whining involved in the process. Maybe not for everyone. Maybe, once I have done this more than once, or more than more than once, I will get good at it. Perhaps it will be a speedier, simpler process. I will only find out if I finish this one and move on.

And now, I am off to sort and compile and shuffle and whatnot. But first, there will be tea. It can only help.

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LOTR quote
Patience Mason was kind enough to send me a copy of her self-published abecediary, Woodland Litter Critters ABC, which has one of the clearest alphabets, in both capital and lower-case letters, that I've seen in a while.

Each page features different "litter critters", which are small creatures assembled by Patience from items she finds on her woodland walks -- what some people might consider cast-offs, or detritus, repurposed creatively by Patience and photographed by her husband, Robert. The very last page of the book includes some photos with diagrams that explain what some of the "critters" were made of, which would allow readers to make some of their own critters.

Patience's sense of fun is plain to see, and the entire project just goes to show how creative people can be.

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Working on poetry this week

frost poetry quote
Well, mostly.

Yesterday, I put in my proposals for next spring's New England SCBWI conference. And I had a small editorial project land on my desk, so I attended to that as well. But for the rest of this week, I'll be working on poetry -- the writing, typing, and editing thereof.

I'm putting together a possible chapbook to submit for consideration at a small local press, and I'm working on a very personal poem for my sweetheart, who has a birthday this weekend, and I'm working on a bunch of other poems.

And next week, I'm probably switching my primary focus back to picture book revisions. Of course, some of my picture books are in rhyme, and most of them resemble poetry one way or another, so perhaps it's a distinction without a difference.

Meanwhile, I am quietly celebrating a small piece of good news, which is that a poem I wrote was listed in the "top ten" poems for Day 3 of National Poetry Month's posts at Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides blog at Writer's Digest. There are still at least a handful of days unjudged, so I'll keep checking back there. Meanwhile, something small to celebrate.

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Why is it so hard to own the good stuff?

to thine own self be true
I'm not talking about money or about actual possessions, here. I'm talking about personal accomplishments. And maybe you have better self-esteem than me, and this won't make any sense to anyone else, but

why is it so hard to register and take pride in one's own accomplishments and successes?

I've been thinking about this in the abstract for more than two weeks, and been mulling this blog post for more than two days, and I'm still not certain I can articulate this well, but I hope you'll let me try. What follows is not intended as anything like a brag, but more like a reality check, as I hope you'll see:

I've been writing seriously for about 12 years now, or since the autumn of 2002. I spent those first few years hoping for a sale, sure that would mean I had "arrived." My first publishing credit was a poem that appeared in an anthology called Summer Shorts in 2006. My response was underwhelming, in part because I'd had to edit the poem in a way that I objected to, but still ... I'd been published. I should have been celebrating and happy, right? And I was, but it was short-lived, and then I found myself not bothering to mention it much as years went by.

My next publication was a poem that appeared in Highlights for Children magazine in 2007. I don't know about you, but I'd always wanted to sell a poem to Highlights. That, I thought, would mean that I had "made it" as a children's writer. This poem was actually my first-ever sale, before the one in Summer Shorts, but it took a couple years to get published, in part because it was a seasonal poem about Hanukkah and had to go into a December issue. I was so happy to sell the poem, and pleased to see it in print, but again, it was a short-lived happiness.

I had poems win awards from Writer's Digest Magazine, including one that won third place (and earned me money and mention inside the magazine). I had poems published in online and print poetry journals. I had poems appear in anthologies for adults and for children. All of these things felt big when they first happened, and quickly lost their shine somehow. While the rejection letters far outnumber acceptances (still and always), there came a time when I realized that the rejection letters no longer had any sting to them - I mostly shrug and move on. There also came a time when I realized that my celebrations of any publishing successes in the arena of journals and such were extremely short-lived. Mostly, they consist of me squealing when I get the acceptance email, then telling my sweetheart about it, then, essentially, shrugging and moving on.

In 2012, my first-ever picture book came out from tiger tales books, a small, independent press in Connecticut. I was thrilled to have a book out. Pleased as punch with my editor, who is the delightful Jamie Michalak, now a full-time author. In love with the illustrations by Mònica Armiño. Finally, my own book!

Now, though, it is 2014, and I haven't sold another picture book (yet). And I find myself forgetting what a triumph it is to have a realio, trulio book out in the world. It's so easy to say "but it's just the one book", or "it's not from a major publisher". I forget that it not only came out, but it was also picked up by Barnes & Noble. (Lots of books aren't.) Not only was it picked up by B&N, but it was also featured in their "summer" collection on their picture book walls, all across the United States. (Lots of books aren't.) It is hard to place poetry anywhere, and I'm lucky to have poems in award-winning anthologies for children. And to have poems in anthologies for adults. And in journals and magazines.

Yet most days, I still feel a bit like a failure. All of these years writing, and I feel as if I have nothing to show for it, despite a shelf full of books and journals and magazines that say otherwise.

My friends, that ain't right.

On Saturday, I had lunch in Philadelphia with Jenn Hubbard, a good friend and a most excellent author. We got to talking about these sorts of things, and Jenn reminded me exactly how hard it is to sell poetry anywhere. There are great poets all over the country and world, and publishing venues aren't as abundant as they could be, and the competition is terribly stiff, and it's difficult to get an acceptance.

Oftentimes, a "sale" to a journal means you get paid in copies of the journal itself, and there's no money. Jenn reminded me that it does not mean, however, that the sale is unimportant or that it is not a huge success. The same reasoning applies to sales to anthologies, where payment per poem tends to be on the low side (because how else could they afford to put out an anthology with a lot of poems inside?). Given how difficult it is to sell one's work, actually selling anything is a huge deal, and deserves to be celebrated.

Interestingly, I had already decided to take a sort of step back and to start celebrating things like actually getting drafts of picture book manuscripts completed, as I mentioned in this post, which concludes as follows:

An author's work is rarely done. So those plateau moments when one major thing has been accomplished and it's not time to start the next step are truly worth celebrating. Because really, life needs more celebrations.

I plan on sticking by that from now on, and on trying to remember that even if I'm feeling a bit like a failure on a given day, there's no basis in fact for that. Not just because I have that shelf full of stuff that says otherwise, but also because I keep writing.

Edited to say: I haven't been sad or upset about this, just wondering why it is so hard for me (and possibly others) to feel good about the things they have done, or to wish for something "more" even when you've achieved a measure of success (however small).

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I love good news, don't you?

Last week, I received my contract for two poems that are going to appear in the forthcoming National Geographic's Book of Nature Poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis. To say that I'm excited is a gross understatement, especially since National Geographic's Book of Animal Poetry (in which my poem, "Sea Jelly", appeared) was so gorgeous!

And on Friday, I got an acceptance from U.S. 1 Worksheets for a poem, which will appear in their yearly journal next spring.

Color me happy!

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Where I was for last week's Revision Camp

mary poppins quote
I was in Louisville, Kentucky

I would say I neglected to mention that I was away from home during last week's Revision Camp, but that would be a falsehood. Why advertise that your house is unoccupied, save for a not especially fierce housecat? My sweetheart was attending a Tai Chi Symposium, learning from five Chinese Grandmasters in each of the five major styles of tai chi (Chen, Sun, Wu, Wu/Hao, and Yang, for those who keep track of such things), so I went along for the ride and the hotel stay and, as it turned out, the bourbon.

We had a very nice, albeit smallish, room in the historic Seelbach Hotel, where I did most of my revision work. Our first full day in town was Sunday, and since the conference didn't start until late afternoon, we managed a nice foot tour of town on our own. We went to the Visitor's Center, where we had our picture taken with a wax figure of Colonel Sanders and picked up passports for the Urban Bourbon trail in Louisville.

Then we visited the Frazier History Museum, which is, as best as I could tell, essentially a collection of weapons, ranging from mail, armor, swords, and pikes to rifles and pistols, with the occasional Native American weapon here and there. They do have Daniel Boone's family Bible, so it's not all weapons, but it's close. Nevertheless, it was interesting (until we got to the guns), since they had a lot of information on battle tactics in various eras.

We saw, but did not pay to visit, the Louisville Slugger Museum, in part because the factory is not operational on Sundays, and in part because we lacked sufficient time to make it worth the admissions fee. But it is a really cool-looking building.

One of the other things we appreciated about Louisville was the amount of public art. It is everywhere downtown. There are tons of sculptures (probably literally, since most of them are metal and/or concrete), and even the little fences they had surrounding trees planted in the sidewalks were wrought iron sculptures featuring trains and beds and more. And there were Louisville Sluggers in metal up and down the section of Main Street near the museum, commemorating various feats achieved with that brand of bat.

Here's what my work space looked like during my Revision Camp. There were two different work areas, the desk and the bed, and I spent most of it on the bed because the desk was simply too high (or the chair far too short) to make the desk practicable for any period of time. I managed to finish drafting and revising two of the picture books I started back in June, and I have to say I'm pretty chuffed about both of them.

As you already know if you read my report from revision camp last week, it took far longer than anticipated, and I was reminded once again that the process takes as long as it takes. And that I was overly ambitious in my planning, since I had something like five picture book manuscripts plus a poetry collection with me, and I "only" got two picture books finished. But you know what? That's actually a pretty huge accomplishment, and I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm celebrating it (still). As I said in Friday's update, "really, life needs more celebrations." It may be my new motto. (Or one of them, at any rate.)

My beloved had a rather full schedule, starting with outdoor tai chi at 6:15 each morning and running until as late as 10 p.m. most nights. On Monday night, I attended the opening banquet with him, and on Thursday, I went with him to watch the Grandmasters' Showcase, which was a really awesome display of tai chi prowess. And I made short trips of my own for sight-seeing and shopping purposes most days. But each day, he had a two hour break from 4:15 to 6:15, and he had Wednesday night completely free, so that's when we participated in the Urban Bourbon tour. That's my Seelbach Cocktail and his Old Fashioned at the Old Seelbach Bar that you see to the right.

Here's me by the lobby staircase holding our Urban Bourbon passports as we headed to the Old Seelbach Bar. (Note the gray hair - I haven't dyed it in months, and am now debating whether to bother again.)

Now we are home, and I find that I kind of miss Louisville. It's a great town to spend time in. I am not quite as tired as I thought I might be, and we are practicing making Old Fashioneds and Manhattans at home, having procured some bourbon during our travels, as well as the various bitters we needed, etc. And life is still good.

And I have more revisions to work on.

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An update on Revision Camp

hey nonny nonny
Yesterday afternoon, I finished the draft of the picture book I was talking about in yesterday's post about the revision process and how long it takes. I was completely happy about it, and celebrated with a drink at dinner and everything.

Of course, today I am wondering whether I want to leave it the way it is, in a first-person telling, or switch it to third person and assign character names. But that is the way these things go. And I will probably try it and see how I like it either way.

Plus I still have full book dummies to do for this picture book and the other one I mentioned, which is about a kitten. (Want to know how to make one? I highly recommend Tara Lazar's post on the topic.

An author's work is rarely done. So those plateau moments when one major thing has been accomplished and it's not time to start the next step are truly worth celebrating. Because really, life needs more celebrations.

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A report from Revision Camp

Begin at the Beginning
Hello, pretties! *waves madly at people in the internet*

I am still enjoying my revision camp, although I have to confess that (a) "enjoying" is sometimes not the right word ("frustrated by" is often more apt) and (b) things are not progressing speedily.

What picture book revision involves

What I picked out to work on this week: five picture book manuscripts in various stages of completion, plus my Shakespeare poems. You see, I binge wrote picture books for a week back in early June, forcing myself to work on a new idea each day for five days in order to get past a sort of block where I wasn't writing because I couldn't get my drafts right on the first try. Not that anyone can actually do that, except for rare occasions where something falls in your lap, but still . . . I'd been twiddling my thumbs for too long and decided to follow the Nike ad's advice and "just do it".

This week, I expected to quickly knock things out. After all, I've been working on these manuscripts off and on since they were written, and I figured it wouldn't take GOBS of work to get them all whipped into shape. (Cue the maniacal laughter of the writing/revision gods.)

What I grabbed first: a picture book that needed, like, three more couplets (yeah, it rhymes) to be a finished draft, plus it needed smoothing and polishing. Friends, it is still not finished, and I've been working on it most of the day every day since Monday. The three additional couplets are done. The polishing and smoothing up of the rest is done. I made a thumbnail dummy (not sure that's what anyone else calls it - I draw a bunch of pages on a single piece of paper and write a word for what happens on each spread.) It works, and could make for great illustrations.

But when I woke from a nap on Tuesday, I realized that one of the couplets up in the middle doesn't actually match the premise, so it has to be hauled out and replaced. I am still struggling to get it fixed.

The total word count on that picture book is around 200 words. Experienced picture book writers know how much every single word matters, and how it takes time to get them "just right", but it's nevertheless easy to think "well, how long can it actually take to fix things when the book is that short?" I'm here to tell you that I've put at least 18-20 hours of work into the poem this week, and it's still not there. And that doesn't count the time spent drafting the initial poem, plus earlier revision passes on the stuff that was written. As of now, before I start work today, I probably have close to 40 hours of time into this manuscript, and it still needs more work once I get the new stanza written and put it in place. (It will have to rest, then I have to revise it again, then it has to go to first readers, etc., ...) At any rate, I thought it might be helpful to some folks to know how long a manuscript can take. Some go faster. Some, I might add, go far more slowly.

It hasn't all been obsessive work on a single manuscript. Yesterday, in order to retain my sanity, I pulled out a different manuscript, also in rhyme. It was a complete mess on the written page, so I typed it up and tweaked it and . . . whaddya know, it's not too bad. I have to consider whether it is "done" or needs another entire stanza (which is significantly longer than a couplet), and whether the ending words stay or need to be replaced. But it's so much closer than I thought it was, so YAY!

On today's schedule: Continued work on the first picture book I mentioned to replace the troublesome stanza, plus make a dummy of some sort (actual or thumbnail) for the second one. There are three more picture book manuscripts plus a poetry collection still sitting there on the sidelines with their arms crossed, scowling at me, but they will have to stay there until I can get to them.

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Two things on a Tuesday

to do list from Dr Horrible
1. Over at Guys Lit Wire I have a post about a poetry collection entitled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers. It's an awesome collection, and I've excerpted two poems as part of that post. You should read them, if you have time.

2. I'm on retreat this week. It's a solo sort of thing, and not a fabulous week spent with other writers. (On the one hand, I love the retreats I've done with other writers; on the other hand, right now being all by myself is what I have the energy for. But I hope to set up a retreat with friends later this year.)

I'm spending the week working on revisions. And by revisions, I include a bunch of new writing, as one does. I am working on several (something like 4-5) picture book manuscripts in various states of disarray, and on a new take on my Shakespeare poems, because I was reading some aloud at a reading last month and thought a couple of them were a bit stilted. And stilted is not a word I really want attached to my work.

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She's making a list and checking it twice

to do list from Dr Horrible
Only it's really a bunch of different lists. One of the key items is an assignment to find a replacement for the day planner I've been using for years. Each year I've bought the same one, an academic At-a-Glance calendar called "Life Links", and I've loved it. Only this year, it's nowhere to be found, not even on the manufacturer's website. (It exists, but the size I use is unable to be ordered. So I have concluded it is either out of stock or discontinued. It certainly isn't anywhere else I can find.)

There are other lists, too. Lists of things to do around the house and in the garden, lists of things to work on revision-wise (my, what a pile of stuff I have here to work on!), and a need for new books and such for something else. Turns out that I have been stricken by a new project idea that will require beaucoup de recherches> And I mean beaucoup. But hey, it will probably also result in some really fun research trips and such, so why not? Right? (Hmm. At present, I find myself less than excited about research trips. The idea is good, but the thought of actual travel is a bit overwhelming. That will doubtless change as I get my feet all the way back under me from this recent conference experience.)

What's on YOUR list?

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