Browse Category by Writing

Musings on drafting, editing, querying, submitting, and publishing in general.

Teaching, Writing

When a student uses your favorite obscure rhetorical device

I really enjoyed teaching AP Language and Composition for many reasons–if nothing else, I still think everything is an argument. An advertisement is an argument, a speech is an argument, a letter is an argument, a poem is an argument, a novel is an argument, a painting is an argument…someone stop me. But one nice fringe benefit was learning a lengthy list of rhetorical devices. Some you may recognize: rhetorical question, pathos, oxymoron, but some are more obscure: chiasmus, synecdoche, and metonymy. But my absolute favorite is zeugma (pronounced zoog-mah).

Right off the bat, Zeugma draws the eye down there at the end of the list, and that vowel combo is uncommon. It comes from the Greek word “to yoke” or to link together, and it essentially is when you use one word and apply it in two different uses or senses. If you are a millennial, I can prove to you that you already know a zeugma and make you sing at the same time:

You are the bearer of unconditional things
You held your breath and the door for me
Thanks for your patience

Alanis Morissette

Our Lady of 90s Female Rage Alanis Morissette sang these lyrics in “Head Over Feet”. It’s a bit of a deep cut, but I just earwormed a few of you.

So there are two senses of the word “hold” at play here. Holding the door, which would be using your hand to keep a door open, and then holding your breath, which means to trap air in your lungs.

Another example of zeugma: he stole my heart and my camera. The two senses of stole are yoked together.

So imagine my delight when I open a short story that one of my 9th grade students wrote. It’s vivid, the setting is engaging, and then a character is introduced: “Among the mournful crowd of peasants and soldiers stood a man with a heavy armour and a heavier guilt.

Y’all. I gasped! I don’t know if he knows that what he wrote is a zeugma, or if he did it intentionally. I definitely did not directly teach zeugma. But I love, love, love that he wrote a brilliant one. His sentence is a great demonstration of why I love zeugmas: they surprise and pivot. It’s a little switch that delights the mind. It’s also very tight, in that sense that in just one sentence we can visualize his armor, but we also establish that he’s done something bad. Zeugmas make for zippy plot and characterization. In an assignment that limited them to 1000 words, this was a good technique.

Okay, that’s all. Just wanted to say I am here for all zeugma-related content.


Titles are hard

Picking titles for a book you’re writing is hard. My Elizabeth novel is especially tricky.

One of the pieces of feedback I got when I queried the project 2 or 3 years ago was that the title then The Princess’s Guide to Staying Alive was too lighthearted and playful for the content of my book. In an early iteration of the book, the beginning was more light and ironic. That is not the case anymore.

So, as I began rewriting I started thinking about titles.

I want to communicate that it’s historical fiction in the title. Maybe that’s not necessary, but I want the fact that it’s set in Tudor England to be somewhat clear.

I want to telegraph the danger, the secrets, the intelligence and the strength that run through the story. It’s about an illegitimate princess who also happens to be the smartest person in the realm. That contradiction is important to the story.

What I landed on a year ago was Bastard Princess. I know that can be a little shocking to read, but let me explain. Elizabeth was a princess when she was born, because Anne Boleyn was still married to Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon had been divorced, and her daughter with Henry, Mary, was now declared illegitimate–a bastard. When Anne Boleyn was executed for treason, Elizabeth was likewise declared a bastard. And when I say “declared” I don’t mean whispered. I mean Parliament passed an official act. Ambassadors to England wrote back to their home countries and described Elizabeth as “the bastard Elizabeth.” People most likely called Elizabeth a bastard to her face.

Coupled with this is the fact that Elizabeth was the best, or perhaps second best, educated person in the kingdom. The best scholar from Cambridge came to tutor Elizabeth and her brother from a young age. When her little brother Edward, destined to rule, split off and continued his studies alone, Elizabeth was then tutored by the second best scholar at Cambridge. A good education isn’t enough–I know this as a teacher. Elizabeth was very intelligent and tirelessly hard-working. She spoke and wrote English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. At age 11, she could translate a text from English to French, Latin, and Greek.

If there was anyone who deserved the title of princess, it was Elizabeth.

I also kind of like the shock that Bastard Princess provides. Princess is ubiquitous word in our culture right now. It’s splashed over clothing and products. It’s how many people refer to themselves or their family members. But when you pair “princess” with “bastard,” your brain almost can’t compute how those two go together. Princesses are spoiled girls with empty heads, right? They aren’t dangerous or defiant. But Elizabeth was both in danger and defiant.

I am also a huge fan of Hamilton: An American Musical. Opening line? “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…”

When I heard that opening line, I was surprised and intrigued. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t shy away from both Hamilton’s challenges and the insults lobbed at him.

Those were the same insults hurled at Elizabeth, changing “son” to “daughter.” And she rose above those challenges, those slurs, just like Hamilton did.

So, Bastard Princess it was.

Until I began to question myself when I began querying again. Nothing like querying to fire up the self doubt to the max.

Would Bastard Princess turn agents off? Would it turn librarians off who wouldn’t display it, lest younger kids read it out loud? Would teachers feel uncomfortable book-talking it?

Maybe. As a teacher, I know how important teachers and librarians are in putting books in kids’ hands. I’m cool with Bastard Princess, but would a teacher be cool with that in Tupelo, Mississippi where my in-laws live? Grrr. Maybe not.

To be fair, the working title is not often what the final title of the published book is. So the real question is would agents be turned off by the title? As the wisdom goes, don’t give an agent a reason to say no. They are overloaded with queries, and if they see a reason to pass, they will take it.

So, cut to me in my bed at 5:30 making a list of words and synonyms. I want to telegraph strength, danger, secrets, survival, intelligence. Here’s what I’m playing around with.

The Eloquence of Ashes

Princess from the Ashes (does it sound too young, like a book for a 5th grader?)

Ink and Ash

Only Ash Remains (too sad? too dark?)

The Shelter of Ashes

Acquainted with Danger (sounds like a Bond movie)

I tried a bunch of titles with words like withstand and persist and fire and storm, but they didn’t work as well. They sounded like the catch phrase for a sports drink.

I think I’m gonna sit on this for a while. Maybe see what comes of the first batch of queries. I’ve got a Manuscript Academy consultation coming up, and I can ask this then. Maybe something will come to me in a dream.


In the 5am club

Despite being not a night person, I’m not the kind of person who can hop out of bed at 5 am. I already get up at 6 am, and there’s something painful about giving up that last hour.

I started writing novels in 2012 when I only had one kid, and I did all my writing at night after bed time. One kid became two, and two became three. Still the nighttime was my preferred writing time.

Then we moved overseas. My teaching load is more mentally tiring. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I teach middle school now instead of high school. I really love middle school, but they need more energy and love and structure. I also teach three different classes in 5 blocks, rather than 2 different classes 4 blocks.

On top of the teaching, I live in another country, so I have daily interactions in another language. I love speaking Portuguese and learning, but it drains the brain.

So, when 8:00 pm rolls around now and the kids are all in bed, I find myself with very little mental gas left in the tank. During breaks from school I’m just as productive as a writer in the evenings. But during the school year, it’s hard.

So, I hiked up my jammies and set the alarm for 5 am.

The first morning I couldn’t even sit upright. I had to lay on the couch, completely flat, with my laptop on my legs. The second morning, I just leaned back and stretched my legs out. By the third morning I could sit like a normal human.

I noticed that my brain was totally focused on my writing in the early morning. I haven’t yet thought of my to-do list, I don’t worry about the laundry, I don’t feel an urge to book a vacation. My attention is narrowed in. As a result, I find I get a lot done in that hour. I probably accomplish as much in that hour as I would in 2 hours in the evening from 8-10 pm.

After a week and a half, I was so exhausted I started stuttering. I had to get more disciplined about going to bed on time. I can’t stay up late and get up early for very long. I went to bed at 8:30 pm one night and slept until 6:30 the next morning. That reset me. Now I’m better about getting to bed by 9 pm in time for some reading.

I take a day or two off each week, but I find that I wake up a little bit at 5 am. I get up quicker and I get to work faster. This might have to be my new normal, but I’m cool with that.

Teaching, Travel, Writing

A new year!

Teaching new curricula (3 of them this semester!) is kicking my butt, and writing on the blog has been super hard.

But, I want to say, hello.  I’m alive!  I’m here!

A student wrote me a very sweet email, and after I wrote my response, I thought it would make a good update on how I’m doing.  I’m pasting it here and adding one or two things.


I am good!  Life is crazy.  But not in a bad way.  In a full way, and in a way that means I make lots of mistakes.  I miss being an expert, being competent, knowing what the next day is going to look like in my class.  This has been so humbling, but in a good way.  I’m starting over, and it’s hard, but you start to realize what really matters or what you were missing in your old life.
The hard part has been writing.  For a variety of reasons, I’m taking a break.  One, I can’t take any more rejection.  I know I looked like I was handling it all so well, but the rejections really built up and I couldn’t do it any more.  Creative fields are so hard because there is 99% rejection in your responses.  I love being creative, but I lost connection with the creative part and was only focusing on the response I was getting.
Someone told me I had to write for myself, not for publication.  I only realize now that I wasn’t doing that.  I am trying to reconnect with me, and why I want to write.  Do I even want to write?  I’m trying to let go of it and see if it comes back.  Because I don’t know if I’m glad about how many hours I’ve given to rejection.  I don’t regret the writing, but the time I spent querying and then getting rejected so quickly, so dismissively.  If that’s what it takes, maybe that’s not what it’s about for me.
Ugh, I feel like I’m 22 again, trying to figure out what to do with myself.  If only you got the answer and then were done.  I wish!
I’ve been thinking about writing a lot.  But when I find my mind wandering into thinking about agents and querying and publishing, I stop myself.  I have to somehow write and separate it from publication.  I probably need to be less intense.  I can hear you laughing.  “Ya think?” I can hear you saying.
I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, what does it look like, being a teacher who writes on the side?
One thing I’ve been doing is exercising.  Between working and writing back in the US, I was not active, I didn’t exercise, and it was getting to an unhealthy level.  Our school here had a 3K Turkey Trot, and after that, I kept running.  I did a 5K in November and I have a 10K on February 3.  Running is easy, cheap, and a good workout for the time it takes.  I’m super slow and not awesome at it, but I’m enjoying doing it.  A writer I follow on Twitter said to remember that we are computers wrapped in meat and we need to keep the meat healthy to make the computer run.  I’m remembering that.
Brazil has been really good, though.  We are doing a unit on cultural norms and taboos with 7th graders and I have so much personal connection.  By seeing the norms and taboos here vs Nashville and Harpeth Hall is so illuminating.  I’m questioning things.  It’s not like Brazil is perfect, or Nashville is perfect.  But I can see the differences and the effects on people.  It’s also helpful for me to look at myself.
Teaching middle school has been awesome.  And also challenging, but in a way I like.  I have amazing colleagues who are smart and passionate and funny.
The kids are good.  It’s been a rough 6 months, but I only realized that now looking back.  I can see now that some things the kids were doing were because of the move, even though I didn’t see it at the time.  But, to be fair, it’s also hard to parent 3 kids, so this may have happened no matter where we lived.
For sure, though, I am so happy to have distance from US politics and news right now.  Every country has its share of bad news, but this break feels nice.  I don’t long to be back.  I’m not homesick.
Over the break my dad was asking me questions that all amounted to: Did you do the right thing, moving?  The answer is yes.  It took 6 months, but this feels more and more like home.  And I know that this was a good decision.
Teaching, Travel, Writing

Almost Alumnae Speech

Today was the “Almost Alumnae Luncheon” at my school.  Graduating seniors and mothers/special friends are invited to a lunch each year.  There’s a student speaker, a faculty speaker, and a mother/alumna speaker.  I was asked to be the faculty speaker.  It was such an honor, and I want to share the text of my speech below.

(A quick note before my speech.  Amy Grant is an alum of Harpeth Hall and she graciously performed three songs and played her acoustic guitar after the speeches.  It was a moving performance that filled my soul in a way I didn’t realize I needed.  When she came up to sing and started strumming and setting her capo, she said, “Meg, I wish I’d had you as a teacher.”  I died.  I am dead.  Amy. Grant.  You can write that on my tombstone.  “Here lies Meg, Amy Grant gave her a shout out.”)

Here is the text of my speech:

Good afternoon.  I am so honored to have been asked to speak to you today.  In my high school, senior speeches happened at the end of the year, at a time much like this when regular class content was finished, and graduation was still a week or two away.  Seniors met in a large room, and we took turns going up and giving a speech to our class. It was a chance to process, to remember and to say goodbye. Teachers were also allowed to give speeches, and I’ve been waiting, hoping that someday I might get a turn to speak as my teachers did.  And how fitting that I too am in something of a senior year at Harpeth Hall. I’m in a similar position to you, preparing to leave the home I’ve known for seven years. I am poised on the lip of a new adventure, about to speak myself into the world, to utter a new existence for myself, just as you are.  

Perhaps you are feeling a lot of pressure for the next four years.  Someone might have told you that college was the best 4 years of their life.  With no disrespect to the lovely memories of those folks, I’ve always been bothered by that.  My best years will be behind me at 22?

I’m not here to say that college is not wonderful, magical, special.  It can be. Certainly, it’s the first time you will take off into the world alone.  But it is not the only time this will ever happen, it is just the first time.  It is the beginning of beginnings, one of many fresh starts that you will be granted during your tenure on this earth.  My adventure teaching in Brazil next year should serve as a tangible reminder of that. And as a person lucky enough to have had more than one new beginning, I have a few words of advice to share–as much a reminder to myself as lessons for you.  

First, embrace impatience.  Anyone can tell you to be patient, serene and calm.  But I want you to be impatient.  Chill is overrated.  You’re excited for this new chapter to start.  You want the rest of your life to start now!

Good, I say.  Be hungry. Want it.  Then, use that impatience as fuel to learn, to grow, to move somewhere new.  

In 2011, I’d been living in New York City for 6 years going to grad school and then teaching.  But I was impatient to leave. A teaching job in the upper school at Harpeth Hall popped up in the listings. I was hungry for a new beginning.  

After embracing impatience, my second piece of advice is to be foolhardy.  Not foolish, mind you, but foolhardy.  To be foolhardy is to be bold, and recklessly so.  Chase those goals with confidence. Sit at the table, even when you don’t know anyone; knock on the big door; raise your hand in a crowded room; bite off more than you can chew.

Who was I to apply to Harpeth Hall?  I didn’t know anyone, I lived in another state, I was only in my 4th year of teaching.   I had a million reasons not to apply. But I wanted to teach at a place like this. So I was impatient and dashed in with a foolhardy confidence.  

Then, I showed up.  Show up–that’s my next piece of advice.   Showing up is more than going to class. Showing up in your own life can be incredibly hard.  It feels easier to run, to hide.  To cancel or to sit out. It’s easier to come up with an excuse, to find a distraction.  Showing up for yourself is harder than it seems.

We spend too much time waiting for perfect conditions.  I’ll write that book when I have the time or the perfect idea.  I’ll apply for that job when my resume has exactly the right things on it.  When I have the courage to move to another country, I’ll do it.

My secret is that I’m not brave, or honestly even ready.  But, being impatient and bold and showing up is what brought me here.  After a phone interview with Ms. Powers for the upper school English job, they flew me to Nashville to interview and teach a lesson.  I still thought my chances were slim. Who was I? Some public school teacher from New York with a theater degree. But I showed up. And I poured all of me into it.  

After 2 agonizing weeks of waiting, the call came in that I got the job.   

So, you’re going to let yourself be impatient and foolhardy, you’ll show up even when you aren’t ready, even if you’re scared.  Then I want you to listen. Pay attention. So, cliche, right? A teacher telling you to pay attention! Let me tell you something about adults.  The path to getting where we are now may seem so inevitable when you see us up here. But in the beginning and the middle of the story that leads to this moment, the ending was anything but certain.  The path doesn’t go in a straight line. You’ve got to pay attention to the signs along the way.  

Some of you may know this about me, but I was a STEM kid.  In addition to theater and the humanities, I took advanced math, and I even doubled up in higher level chem and bio in senior year.  And in high school I needed an answer when people asked what I wanted to be. I was good at bio and chem and I didn’t really love physics, I liked working with kids, so… pediatrician.  I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re good at STEM and like working with people, right?

So, I went to college hungry and impatient.  In freshman year, I showed up and volunteered at the children’s hospital, and worked in a research lab. I took all the math and science classes, and I got straight A’s.  

Then, near the end of freshman year, I was sitting in my chemistry class, looking to the world like the ideal student.  But in my head, I couldn’t make myself care about it anymore. I was miserable. I was so unhappy. I had been steaming forward with such vigor toward med school, doing everything I was supposed to do.  And yet, when I paid attention, the signs around me were so clear. I paid attention to the truth, deep down, that this path wasn’t right for me anymore. Just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.

So, what now?  What was my life going to be?  I felt a deep sense of despair, something akin to a major break-up.  Despite the despair, I dropped my biology major and pre-med focus. Theater was the other thing I loved doing, so I turned my impatient energy toward a career on the stage.  I went abroad during my junior year to London, and I studied Shakespeare and classical acting all day. From 9 am to 6 pm, I immersed myself in theater.

And then, second semester…you may have a sense of where this is going…I was miserable.  In March, when the cast list was posted for the play, for the first time in my life, I didn’t care what part I got.  I’d never felt that way before. But I listened to that feeling.

I came home that summer and regrouped.  I got an education internship at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.  That summer, teaching kids about Shakespeare, I felt a happiness and fulfillment that–finally–lasted.  

It may sound totally obvious now, seeing me standing here, that I was destined to be a teacher.  But as a 21-year-old, I had no idea. Even though I realized education was a good fit, it would take a year of graduate school for me to realize that teaching English was where I belonged.  

So I want you to pay attention.  Forgive yourself if the career or field you picked perhaps as far back as elementary school doesn’t end up being the one you land on.  It’s not bad to admit you don’t love it like you thought you would. It’s not quitting to follow where you are most happy. And you don’t have to do something just because you are good at it.  

My husband, David, likes to quote a math teacher who says, “Find what you love.  Do more of that.”

You might find that the thing you love was not the thing you were known for being good at at Harpeth Hall.  College is a new beginning so that you can start anew.  You are not a fixed person.   And you will not always be the person your parents and classmates thought you were while you were here.  When I won the English award in high school, my mom said after the assembly, “I thought you weren’t good at English.”  Going to college and then into the world let me see myself beyond the lens of my parents and high school peers. It’s good to get out and see yourself more clearly.  

So, pay attention.  Find what you love. Do more of that.  Listen to mentors and professors when they compliment and encourage you.  Try to silence the voices that tell you that you aren’t “that” kid. The kid who’s good at [blank].  Trust that you don’t know yet exactly what kind of person you are. Trust that you are still forming.  I’m 35 and I have three kids and I still see so much change happening in my life. I’m still forming. I hope it is ever thus.  

Be impatient.  Be foolhardy. Show up.  Pay attention. Find what you love, do more of that.  

It’s what brought me to be standing on this stage, after the seven most formative years of my teaching.  Like you, Harpeth Hall has been an incredible education for me. I have learned things here that I never imagined.  I have accomplished things I couldn’t have done had it not been for this place and the people in it. And now I will take those gifts that this beauty on the hill gave me, and I will, as poet Thomas Lux says:

boil and boil, render
  it down and distill,
  that for which there is no
  other use at all, boil it down, down,
  then stir it with rosewater, that
  which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
  which you smear on your lips

And go forth
  to plant as many kisses upon the world
  as the world can bear!


Thank you.


We need Princess Elizabeth’s story

The news over the past few weeks has been startling.  Starting on October 5, when the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, a cascade of women and men have come forward, breaking years or even decades of silence, to speak about harassment and assault by powerful and influential men.  Harvey Weinstein was just the beginning.

Then the Roy Moore story broke.  I got chills when I read the details.  A 14-year-old pursued by a 30-something man.  And when the apologizers appeared, those who excused Roy Moore’s behavior, the internet started posting pictures of themselves 14-year-olds.

This story sounds very familiar.  It’s the basic plot of my novel, The Princess’s Guide to Staying Alive.

When Elizabeth Tudor (the future Virgin Queen) was 13, Henry VIII died and she went to live with her last stepmother, Katherine Parr.  Katherine Parr remarried quickly enough to turn heads.  She married her old flame, Thomas Seymour.  Seymour was the uncle to the king and an ambitious social climber.  His motives may not be possible to nail down exactly, but he began making predatory sexual advances on his step-daughter Elizabeth.  Katherine was having a difficult pregnancy and her marriage was fraying.  Elizabeth was the sister of the king, but the bastard daughter of a beheaded queen.  She was a young woman in a vulnerable position, and she became Seymour’s target.

In the summer of 1548, Elizabeth was sent away from her stepmother’s home to live with a family friend.  Katherine Parr had finally realized the extent of Seymour’s actions.  After being sent away, Elizabeth would never see her stepmother again.  Katherine Parr died in childbirth in late summer 1548.  In early 1549, Thomas Seymour was arrested and charged with treason.  Thrown into his long list of charges was conspiring to marry Elizabeth after Katherine Parr died.  That charge was treason for Elizabeth–royal women weren’t allowed to negotiate their own marriages.  That was the sole purview of King and his council.

The rumors of Thomas’s behavior with Elizabeth were all over court by this point.  There were certain factions who thought that if they could get Elizabeth to confess, she would be charged with treason and perhaps beheaded, thereby eliminating another heir to the throne.  Sir Robert Tyrwhit, a local knight, was sent to Elizabeth’s house to interrogate her.  It’s clear from his letters to the Lord Protector that he thought that Elizabeth would buckle and confess.  After all, she was just a 15-year-old, orphaned bastard.

But here is what this story is really about.  It’s about strength and survival.  It’s about how a girl with an education defeats a grown man.  Because that’s what she did.  Robert Tyrwhit lived in her house, had her ladies spy on her, and used every tactic he could think of to get Elizabeth to slip up and implicate herself in treason.  He belittled her.  He berated her.  He pretended to befriend her.

And Elizabeth outsmarted him.  She only told him things he already knew, she played weak, she played sad.  She was patient.  She didn’t lose her cool.  Her extensive education and training in oration and argumentation kept her always stay one step ahead of his tactics.  She wore him down.  She outlasted him.

What I want everyone to know is that Elizabeth’s story is one of triumph and survival.  You need to look at those portraits, the Rainbow and the Pelican, and you need to know that you are looking at a woman who survived.  She survived and she reigned.  And for some, they might read her story and feel less alone.

I’m sort of biased because I wrote it, but I think that my book is important.  It’s timely.  And I hope that it makes it out into the world.


SCWBI Conference for the win!

My hope was that the SCBWI Midsouth conference would bust my funk…and it did!

There’s so much to say, but I have to begin by sharing that I feel very lucky to live in this region.  Ruta Sepetys won the Crystal Kite award and her speech was awesome.  She spoke at the school where I teach a few years back when we read Between Shades of Gray for the all school read.  She’s a great public speaker, despite saying that she prefers not to leave her house.  She said that she was standing there because she’s a “supported failure.”  I absolutely love that concept and can’t wait to talk about it with my students.

Laurent Linn gave the key note and it was everything I needed to hear.  He was inspiring.  He was humble and warm.  Hearing about his journey as an artist and story-teller was really powerful, and a great start to the conference.

I went to so many amazing sessions.  I learned a lot and my head was buzzing with ideas.  I love the feeling of having ideas!  I felt like manuscripts that were languishing in my stack suddenly got a second chance at life!  Ninja Queen lives!  (I really should make shirts that say that.)

Katie Carella gave a great presentation on the 4-year-old Branches line of early readers at Scholastic.  I absolutely loved that session.  I learned a lot and I loved her keynote with Jessica Young.  My son loves the Haggis and Tank books, so it was great to see how those books came into the world.  (I’m going to submit Ninja Queen to her.  Ninja Queen lives!  Gotta get some T-shirts!)

Linda Camacho did a great session on YA lit that fed my academic soul as well as my writer’s soul.  She talked about the origin of YA lit and what the trends have been like for each decade since then.  I appreciated her thoughtful and balanced outlook.

I had a great face-to-face critique that confirmed that the edits and revisions I’ve put into PRINCESS’S GUIDE over the last month were the right direction.  That’s a great feeling.  I can see how much I’ve learned about writing over the past 6 years.

I connected with old friends and made some new ones.  We’re already adding to our critique group and planning our next meeting.

My amazing husband and co-parent flew solo with the rest of our clan, and I was relieved that the weekend went smoothly in my absence.  This is the last conference where I’ll have to pump in the car in between sessions–yay.  I’m so happy that I was able to do this conference and that I am also a supported failure.

Based on my critique, I’ve put in a few more revisions on my YA novel, and I’m working on polishing my submission for Katie Carella at Branches.  I feel energized as I move into NaNoWriMo with my new middle grade project.  I signed up on the NaNoWriMo website and finally settled on a working title: Normal Girl (Reluctantly) Saves the Day.

Okay.  My batteries are fully charged and I’m ready to set off!

Teaching, Writing

On being in a funk

Yesterday I described my current mood to a student and she said, “You’re in a funk, Mrs. Griswold.”

She’s right, and she named it well.  I’m in a funk.  It may the broken nights of sleep due to the 9 month old and his cold.  It might be the new class I’m teaching.  But it’s really about rejection.  This week brought two rejections from full requests.  I call them “je ne sais quoi” rejections.  “I just didn’t click with this” or “I just didn’t connect.”  This came on the heels of me abandoning a best seller, a book I fully expected to love.  And I didn’t.  I couldn’t connect, so I set itdown.

I hate it and I get it.

I think about my students who probably get back at least 2 pieces of critiqued work a day, maybe more.  And they don’t get to wallow, they have to keep moving forward onto the next unit or assignment.  So it’s a good reminder that I’m in a place of adult privilege.  I get to choose when I reach out for feedback and when I don’t.  Boohoo, Mrs. Griswold.

I printed a piece from The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.”  It was a 6 paragraph balm.  A boon.  He talked about learning French.  The capital S Struggle.  He quoted Carolyn Forche who said, “I’m going to have it.”  (I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I think it would be that sentence.)

The students loved Coates’s piece.  They liked the line, “But I also feel like I am getting better at stumbling.”

Reading that with them lifted me out of my funk, somewhat.  My gloom stems from my fear that the manuscript done for, that the error is fatal.  The worst feeling is not knowing what to fix or work on or learn.  I need to feel like I have a path out.

Maybe I just can’t have any of those answers.  I just have to wait and deal with what comes.

And begin again.  Again again.  I’ve got my next idea in the hopper.  (Is that the right metaphor?  Like a train hopper car?  Is there a grain hopper somewhere in my mind as well?)  I’m going to write something new during NaNoWriMo.

I told a student today that I feel best when I’m creating.  Because you can’t judge and create simultaneously.  Or at least, I can’t.  When I am making something, I have a beautiful feeling of flow.  I like producing.  It staves off the despair.

I’ve got my SCBWI conference this weekend.  I know that will fill my heart.  Maybe I’ll see the path out then.  Maybe there will be good news when I get through the weeds and the vines.

Also a nap.  I hope there’s a nap soon.

Teaching, Writing

Lab Girl Review


I remember really well when I first heard about Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.  I was driving across town between teaching classes, trying to make it to a PreK tour on time.  I was listening to On Point on NPR and I heard an interview wherein Jahren read an excerpt of Lab Girl.  I had been swearing at the traffic that was making me late, but listening to Jahren read aloud from her book, I burst into tears.  She has a line that just cut me right to the quick.  It’s from a passage that is a few pages long where every paragaph begins “My lab is…” Here’s the quote I remember bringing me to tears:

There is no phone and so it doesn’t hurt when someone doesn’t call me.  the door is locked and I know everyone who has a key.  Because the outside world cannot come into the lab, thelab has become the place where I can be the real me. (19)

I had to jog across the street to the school from my parked car, wiping my eyes and sniffing.  I made it to my tour just a few minutes late, and I knew I needed to read that book.

I had a baby in December of last year and I finally got my chance to read it this summer when I used my Christmas gift card to Parnassus from my in-laws.  It did not disappoint!

(Sometimes I find it extra hard to write about a book I really loved.  It’s almost too hard to articulate what my heart is saying, so bear with me.)

Lab Girl is the memoir of a Paleobotanist.  She studies ancient plant fossils, and sometimes living fossils.  She does some geology, too, but plants are her passion.  Her book begins with her as a child in her father’s lab, but it quickly zooms forward and follows her in college, grad school and then working as a researcher and professor at a bunch of universities.

I love the structure of Lab Girl.  The chapters alternate between botany and memoir.  So, the odd numbers would be chapters about how plants grow, how roots work, how plants communicate.  Some of it was basic science, but usually she jumped off of the well-explained basics to talk about cutting edge plant science.  But these chapters weren’t like a text book, they were like poetic love letters to trees and plants.  I loved reading them.

I also enjoyed the memoir sections.  The big themes were never having enough money, being lonely, impostor syndrome, staking your claim as a woman at the table.  So, you know, the same issues most professional women I know deal with.  That was what was so great and relatable.  She was really honest and open to her readers.  She talked about her struggles with mental health as well.  Those topics didn’t dominate the book, and there were times when she was holding back a bit, but I think she balanced the elements well.  The variety made this book a very enjoyable read.

I’m going to use a few excerpts from this with my AP Language students next year.  AP Language and Composition focuses on argument, rhetorical devices and language.  This book is chock full of lyrical, narrative nonfiction that uses language in powerful ways.  I’m actually going to pair a chapter she has on trees to a chapter of Sandra Cisneros semi-autobiographical novel The House on Mango Street, “Four Skinny Trees.”

What I really love about this book is that she is a very poetic, creative scientist.  At schools, the disciplines tend to get so segregated and I think that sometimes students feel like you can’t be a creative writer if you are good at math and science, and all poets must hate numbers.  Not true!  I don’t bring it up often, but I was a very strong math and science student both in high school and college.  I got A’s in Chemistry and Calculus in college and loved those classes.

Jahren has a strong sense of character as well.  Bill is a huge part of the story and I enjoyed getting to know him.  The chain smoking lab tech of her college days was also really vivid and alive on the page.

I also love a book that uses swearing well.  This definitely falls into that category.  I found myself repeating some lines of dialogue or narration out loud, either because they moved me or made me laugh.

Lab Girl is an excellent read and I highly recommend it, whether or not you’ve ever enjoyed science.  In fact, Jahren begins the book by telling you to think of a tree you know or look out your window at a tree.  Observe it.  Tada!  You’re a scientist.  Her book was welcoming and warm and I loved it from start to finish.


Writing my second novel

For the past year I’ve been simmering a few different ideas for my next big novel project.  I’m learning that I do best when I let lots of ideas hang out in my head until eventually one steps forward and takes the lead.

Right before I had a baby last December, I went to my local bookstore Parnassus (such a gem, Nashville is so lucky to have this place) and bought a new Elizabeth I biography, Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton.  I have written an Elizabeth I picture book biography, and I was interested to see Lisa Hilton’s focus on gender, imagery, and education.

A few weeks after Everett was born, I was mentally ready to read a book, so I started hanging out in his nursery with the space heater keeping it nice and toasty, and the noise machine whirring away, and reading while he slept.  I called it my warm cave of silence.

I adored the book.  Lisa Hilton writes with great style and her sentences would often knock me over, like this one: “How often in her childhood did Elizabeth hear the word bastard?” (Lisa Hilton 40).  I had to stop and read that one aloud just to let it sink in.  I really loved the way Hilton zoomed out frequently to consider the big ideas and larger context, and the way she approached each of the “characters” in Elizabeth’s life.

I realized then how much there was to Elizabeth’s life that I wanted to explore.  I bought Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Children of Henry VIII, and The Life of Elizabeth I.  I started listening to podcasts while I pushed the baby in his stroller during maternity leave, in particular I was so happy to stumble onto The History Chicks.  They, and many others, mentioned David Starkey’s biography of Elizabeth.  So I ordered that.  Then I ordered the beautiful The Public and Private Worlds of Elizabeth I by Susan Watkins, so that I could see some images of the places and things in Elizabeth’s world.

I also realized that I needed to know more about the details of Katherine Parr’s life.  For that, I read the lovely biography by Linda Porter, Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, the Last Wife of Henry VIII.  As someone who has fallen down a rabbit whole of Tudor and Elizabethan era bios, I have to say that this one was my favorite and I enjoyed Ms. Porter’s writing the best.  (If I ever met her, I think I’d be too starstruck to speak.)

I was now becoming quite the consumer of biographies of Elizabeth and those associated with her.

The most intriguing part was the differences I started to notice between the different biographies.  I started reading completely different interpretations of, say, a letter to Katherine Parr in 1544.  How could that be?

The logical next step was to read the primary sources and decide for myself.  So, I ordered The Collected Works of Elizabeth I and The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents.  In reading those, I started to wonder what the original manuscripts looked like.  Now I was searching out images of original manuscripts in Elizabeth’s own hand. There really is something special about seeing words that she herself put on paper.

I also started looking for the original state papers and privy council documents that I read snippets of in the various biographies I’d read.  What other parts of the letters and documents was each biographer leaving out?  Maybe there was something in those unquoted parts that would tell me something that I might find significant.  I’ve now learned how to use the British Library’s digital collection, and the British History Online‘s collection of state papers.  I really knew I’d hit the big time when I put in a special request to the British Library for digital images of some of the original manuscripts that weren’t available online–and I have to wait longer because the librarians need special permission to access those manuscripts.  Oh for a plane ticket to England and white gloves!  (Side note: I am still shocked that there are things that aren’t on the Internet.  I will tell you, there are things that aren’t on the Internet, including digital images of all of Elizabeth’s original letters.)

And then something funny happened as I researched.  I developed an opinion of my own.  Read one biography and you will presumably accept that biographer’s take on the subject.  Read a second, and you will notice the contradictions but feel somewhat flummoxed by it all.  By the time I was transcribing and translating 16th century primary sources and zooming in on JPEGs of manuscript photographs, I started to hear a new voice among all the clamor of biographers I’d read: my own.

This was a new experience for me, as far as researching a historical figure.

Through all this reading and research, I was outlining my story.  I put Elizabeth’s life up to her coronation into an outline.  After I did that, though, I realized that I was particularly drawn to her life from age 13 to 15, namely the Thomas Seymour incident.  Most people have never heard of this, and even most historians, unless this era is a focus, have not delved into these events.

When I realized this was becoming a focus, I got another biography, The Young Elizabeth by Alison Plowden which focuses in on Elizabeth’s younger years.  This was helpful as I really worked hard to make sure that I was right on all of my details.

As I was outlining these years of Elizabeth’s life, it just so happened that a teenage girl from my state made the national news when she was abducted by her 50-something high school teacher and a nationwide manhunt ensued.  I had an eerie feeling when I recognized the similarities between what was happening on the news and what Elizabeth went through at that age herself.

This Spring I had lots of conversations with students and colleagues about this project.  When I summarized the Katherine Parr/Thomas Seymour events when she was 14, it seemed to strike a chord.  Maybe I was on to something.

I returned to my outline and zoomed in on those two years, stripping everything else away.  And then I started waking up in the night with a sentence or two in my head that I’d quickly type into my outline.  I would have ideas at red lights that I would dictate into my phone.  I started to feel like a racehorse in the gate at the Derby, the ones who start getting restless before the gun goes off.  (Those are always the horses I cheer for.)

And when the school year ended, the gates opened and I started writing.

But what, exactly, was I writing?  If I said “historical fiction” people immediately mentioned Philippa Gregory.  No disrespect to Ms. Gregory (I love her books), but that didn’t feel like what I was trying to do.  I also couldn’t really say “Oh, I’m writing Hamilton, except not a hip hop musical,” because that’s like saying you think you’re the next Hemingway.  It makes you sound a big like a yahoo.

It came to my attention that a book was recently sold that was billed as a biographical novel. It was about a famous woman, but it focused on her teenage years.  I’ve done some more research and I’ve seen some other projects also categorized as biographical novels, and that feels like a good fit.

I could really get into a great discussion about the shifting line between non-fiction and fiction is.  Because here’s what I’ve learned this year: there isn’t one agreed upon Truth.  There’s discrepancy and different interpretations among the biographers.  So, isn’t there an element of choice and fiction in each of their biographies?

My other priority is my audience.  I’m writing for teenagers, and I know that from my experience as a teenager, and now teaching them every day, they don’t really love biographies as a genre.  There’s the occasional student who enjoys them, but she tends to be the exception.  But they also love Hamilton, because Hamilton made a founding father feel real, current, and relatable.  So, I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I’m trying to make Elizabeth I feel like that for teenagers.

So, I’m writing a multi-genre, modern vernacular biographical novel with primary sources woven throughout.  I am approaching this project the way I approach my teaching.  Next year I’m going to teach a series of units on Elizabeth I in my World Literature and AP Language and Composition classes.  The kinds of tasks I might assign are the kinds of things I’ve written in my book: make a playlist for a historical figure, write a short play that dramatizes an event described in a letter, write a scene where you imagine a scenario that answers a question we have no answer for in primary sources, transcribe a historical document and then translate it into today’s vernacular.  If it helps, I’d say both Hamilton and McSweeney’s are big influences.  I have lists and satirical FAQs.  Rather than a rap battle like Hamilton and Jefferson have, I’ve written a boxing match between Elizabeth and Sir Robert Tyrwhit.

I am so excited to bring this book into the world.  Stay tuned!