Don’t get betwixt and between these guys, or you’ll get squished! With Doc and Friday Matley.

Thank goodness I’m not betwixt and between the proverbial rock and a hard place. At the moment, I’m betwixt and between lots of stuff, mostly writing projects but darn, I’d sure like to get our rugs shampooed before the holidays.

It’s not that we have company during the holidays- -far from it. Matley Acres could be described as a destination spot for holiday avoidance. In short, we’re super low-key in our celebrations. The thing is, last year I bought this terrific rug cleaning machine and we haven’t used it for nearly that long. With four cats and a dog who loves to crawl on his stomach, it can get a bit grim underfoot.  I’ve grown accustomed to thinking that the carpet in the great room really is gray. Hint: to maintain this illusion, do not move the furniture.

Cleaning carpets, of course, is an avoidance strategy. Or is it the other way around?

The recent big move forward is, I’ve finished the first draft of my middle grade novel set in 1971, the year I started seventh grade. You remember 1971, right? If not, ask your grandparents or the neighborhood dinosaurs. It’s been interesting, thinking back to the cultural environment of that time, when (my) life was dominated by TV, including footage of the Vietnam War on the nightly news. For prime-time viewing, I favored The Mod Squad, The Flip Wilson Show and All in the Family. Not as many moms worked outside of the home, especially not full-time, hence they were available to “ruin the lives” of teenagers more hours a day than they are now. Most dads worked. In my homes town, they mostly worked at the paper mill.

When I started the middle grade novel project I had decided to set it in contemporary times. Soon, I realized, this was not a good idea. Why? Because I know what it was like to be a seventh-grader in 1971. Drawing on my own experiences brings more life and detail to the story than if I were playing 46 years of catch-up. Also, one of the things a book can do is build a bridge between generations. If today’s middle grade reader (roughly defined as ages 8 to 12 but some sources extend the range to young teens) can read a story set in their grandparents’ time, told through the perspective of a kid, it could start some interesting conversations.

I spent about ten seconds congratulating myself for finishing the first draft. Why so little? Because there’s still a crushing amount of work to do. In a word, revision. Over the next two months I’ll analyze the story I’ve written, decide which parts to cut and what stays, develop parts that are thin or missing something, research as needed (yes, it is a good idea for writers to research a time in history even though they lived through it). A tighter, more compelling, error free (dream on!) second draft will go to my first reader, the inimitable Bruce Matley. After I consider Bruce’s comments and make whatever changes I think are appropriate in the next revision, that version goes off to my critique partner, the Line Editor from Hell (LEFH).

Usually I consider the project done after revising yet again based on the LEFH’s feedback, plus reading the manuscript through and tinkering with it about 100 times after that (and, of course, reading the entire thing out loud to catch anything I might have missed). Not this time. This time, I’m taking the additional step of sharing the manuscript with middle grade students, teachers and librarians for their input. Teachers and librarians in 3 states have volunteered to assist in this part of the writing/revision process. Students, as well as teachers and librarians, will be invited to read and comment on the manuscript, also to complete a survey about reading, writing and the world in general. In exchange for receiving an additional and highly relevant level of critique, I hope to provide the experience of learning to analyze a story, also to inspire students to write fiction of their own. If I find a home for the new book, the acknowledgments section will be vast.

The flip side of the actual writing is selling a book. I’m still searching for a literary agent (six queries completed, four rejections to date and a new query in progress). There’s a lot to learn about writing a query letter and how to craft a synopsis, two pieces critical in enticing an agent to read the actual manuscript. The internet offers much guidance for query letters. After flailing around trying to figure out what’s “right” I think my queries are stronger than when I started. It’s good policy to know who a literary agent’s clients are and read some of the books they’ve represented. Some agents also share the titles of their favorite books. As a result, I’ve recently read (for the first time) Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is part of the effort to learn about the agent and discover common ground with them that can be conveyed in the query. Kind of like applying for a job with someone who attended the same school as you did. If you can deftly slip this connection in to the query letter, you’ve done your job.

Betwixt and between. Still working, still far from rich and famous. But maybe I’ll have a clean rug in the next few weeks.

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