When the Theaters are Empty

Finding silver linings to a pandemic sometimes feels uplifting and sometimes feels feckless, but how can we possibly get through these days if we don’t seek out and celebrate the positives? I work at a university with a lovely performing arts venue, which has been empty and dark since mid-March. In an effort to bring art back into that space and out into the world, the creative types responsible for that space have invited a range of artists onto the stage where they perform for two video cameras and an empty house. The videos are offered via social media as a way to say we’re still here, we’re still making art, and you can still bask in the glow of creativity. Thanks to the Weis Center at Bucknell University for this opportunity.

Here’s me reading from chapter three of The Rosemary Spell:

Weis Center Sessions #6: Virginia Zimmerman reads from The Rosemary Spell

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What I’ve Learned from Books — Covid19 Edition

As I hunker down in these strange days both filled and emptied by Covid-19, I find myself thinking often of one of my most deeply held beliefs about reading: we learn from books how to face challenges in our lives. Sometimes those challenges are real, like facing a bully at school; sometimes they take real issues and put them in fantastical garb, like facing a dragon on a mountaintop. In all cases, reading about how characters overcome obstacles prepares us to overcome the same or similar obstacles in our own lives. C. S. Lewis affirms this in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” where he writes, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage” (216).

The cruel enemy we meet now is a virus and the world-wide disruption it’s causing, as well as the sensible disruption we bring on ourselves in the form of social distancing as we attempt to curb the effects of the virus. So what have I learned from books about how to face this challenge? I could mention the scrappy resourcefulness of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter or Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, but it’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I can’t get out of my mind.

In this final installment of J. K. Rowling’s series, there is a long, lovely section when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are apparating from remote location to remote location, ostensibly seeking horcruxes but not knowing where to look. Not everyone loves this part of the final book in the series, but I’ve always felt Rowling perfectly captures the quiet desperation of striving daily to protect yourself from a powerful enemy while also working out what to eat and how to get along with the people in your tent.

In my tent, we are not literally burdened by lockets of evil hanging around our necks, but we carry novel anxieties which sometimes feel insidious and damaging. We must give ourselves permission to set these aside, and we must be patient with each other. We must hang on to the knowledge that when the time comes any one of us would jump into an icy pool to save the others.

Of course, it’s the saving ourselves and others that offers the greatest connection to this portion of Deathly Hallows. We’ve thrown up shield charms in the form of closed schools and cancelled events. We spend our days casting protective spells in the form of hand washing—for a full twenty seconds, or the spell doesn’t work. We do our best to keep informed, seeking out and soaking up reliable information from our real-world equivalents of Potterwatch. And we wait, trying hard to be our best selves.

So, I sigh and steal myself and go to cast today’s shield charms and protective spells, knowing my magic is strengthened by what I’ve read.

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Creative Click

If you’re here, you know me as the author of books for young readers. You may not know that I’m also an actress. In 2015, some twenty years after I took my final bow in college, I stuck my toe in the waters of community theatre, and over the past four years, I’ve been privileged to perform in several productions. I am currently appearing in a mainstage show at Bucknell University, where I work. Normally, these shows are cast exclusively with students, but because of the nature of this play and the creative choices of the director, several faculty members are in the cast alongside the students. This means I have enjoyed over the past few months the extraordinary experience of working with highly talented people in a highly intensive environment, all of us dedicated to the magical task of making art.

I make art when I write, and I recognize and enjoy other forms of art, but I’ve generally thought of music, dance, theater, writing, painting as largely separate fields. Of course they come together in myriad ways, and this is always exciting, but I imagined the creative process for each art form to be unique. As a writer, I’ve looked to other writers for world-building and character exercises and for the more abstract, difficult-to-define processes of cultivating stories. However, the experience of working on this play has awakened a new understanding of creativity.

Through a variety of exercises, we’ve looked for our characters and the atmosphere of the play in our bodies and voices and hearts, as well as in the space where we perform. Early on in doing this work, an exercise that began with writing (my comfort zone) and moved on to walking in unusual ways (NOT my comfort zone) led me to discover something essential about my character. What was most striking about this discovery is that I recognized the sliding-into-place of pieces of identity. I recognized this feeling from when my understanding of a character I’m writing suddenly deepens. Sometimes this deepening is the direct result of my searching for answers to questions I’ve posed, but sometimes it happens unexpectedly when I’m not looking for it. It’s a very distinctive emotional-intellectual click, the sound of creativity happening.

The click that happened for me most recently wasn’t about a particular character or story. It was about how the creativity of play – whether on the stage or on the page, or, I imagine, on a canvas or a keyboard – is one type of creativity. It’s about using all of yourself, not just the parts you already know and trust. It’s about inviting ideas in and letting them lodge in unexpected places. It’s about the physical, emotional, and poetic gestures where imagination and intellect meet and together make art.

Through the alchemy of writing and acting, I’ve learned that creativity is a vast and powerful force that gives life to all art. Like air, it is everywhere, sustaining everything. We breathe it in and fill ourselves with it, and then we transform it and send it out into the world.



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My Ghosts

I’m in the early stages of a new project, and I’ve learned one of the best approaches to these first months with new characters is to let them mill about on their own in my mind. Sometimes I press them into service as I draft a chapter and then re-draft it and then throw it out and start over. Sometimes I ask them to sit still so I can scrutinize them via a hodgepodge of character development exercises. Drafts and exercises sharpen my sense of the story and add layers to the characters, certainly, but these people are just as likely to resolve into clarity on their own, while I’m looking at other things.

Because this new book involves ghosts, it is easy to think of these characters haunting me, lurking at the edge of my imagination. Like ghosts, they appear unexpectedly, occasionally when I look for them but more often when I  don’t. Like ghosts, my characters are the leavings of what’s come before, bits and pieces of my own life, of stories I’ve heard, people I’ve known, places I’ve been, and history I’ve studied. They live in the present but are of the past. They are imagination embodied.

Of course, since these are fictional ghosts of my own making, they are also of the present, and as I go about my business, waiting for the time to be right to put these characters onto paper, they are enriched by the happenings of the now. Small details like the color of the first snow clouds of winter and large ones like devastating fires in California are painted with the infinite brush strokes of my days onto my ghosts. They will one day live in the story I’m only just getting to know, and they will haunt readers who don’t yet know these characters are coming into their lives. And then these ghosts will mill about in other minds, waiting to be mustered.

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On Re-Reading Harry Potter, Twenty Years Later

On the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as many of us look back on our first meeting with the boy wizard, it seems appropriate to consider the topic of re-reading. Some will take this anniversary as an occasion to re-read, perhaps experiencing as an adult a book first experienced as a child. Many have already re-read that first book and all the others more times than they can count.

For some of us, re-reading the Harry Potter books has become a part of life like visiting family at Thanksgiving or going to church. Thanks to e-readers, many of us carry all seven books around at all times and relish the chance to delve into favorite passages while waiting for the bus or the dentist. Many of us know exactly where our hard copies of the books wait for us, at the ready on the shelf, and I suspect most of us can name without hesitation the chapters we turn to when we need strength or comfort or a reminder of who we are. Those of us who identify as readers likely also identify as re-readers. We learned in childhood the joy of returning to a much-loved book. Along with Harry Potter, other books and series have grown soft and ragged as we have read them until they literally fell to pieces.

Re-reading is an important kind of reading that doesn’t get a lot of attention. When we return to a book, we appreciate not just the story but how the story is told. A famous example from Harry Potter is J.K. Rowling’s strategic placement of the vanishing cabinet in Chamber of Secrets when she didn’t really need it until Half-Blood Prince, four books and seven years later. When they re-read the earlier book, fans appreciate the author’s deft management of detail, but they also learn something about how stories work. Most writers know the mantra, “the end must be in the beginning.” When thoughtful readers return to a book, they, too, know the end in the beginning, and they watch the author maneuver people and plots toward that end. Think how often in the very first book of the series Harry hears how he has his mother’s eyes.

Re-reading also offers an opportunity for self-reflection as people measure their own growth against books when they return to them. For example, between the first and fifth times through the series, a reader may become a parent and therefore understand Harry’s mother differently, or Ron’s. A reader may suffer unrequited love or struggle with a cruel administrator, both experiences that will alter relationships to characters and plots. And an older reader may discover that her values, her notions of friendship or of bravery, even her sense of self are rooted in the Harry Potter books.

As if Rowling anticipated how these books would be re-read, she artfully makes careful scrutiny of certain books central to the plot. Re-reading is essential in the sixth book in which a battered potions text bears evidence of much careful reading in the copious annotations inscribed by the Half-Blood Prince; enchanted with this textual artifact, a palimpsest of sorts, Harry reads and re-reads those notes, modeling the behavior of Rowling’s readers who pore over the unauthorized annotations on myriad fan sites and the authorized ones from canonical sources, such as Pottermore. Hermione is the character most frequently depicted reading, and she returns often to certain works, such as Bathilda Bagshot’s History of Magic. This book appears for the first time in Philosopher’s Stone and resurfaces throughout the series, moving out of the margins in Deathly Hallows. In this final book, Hermione keeps History of Magic in her magical handbag where it is always available for reference.

Deathly Hallows features several significant acts of re-reading, such as Harry’s many returns to Elphias Doge’s “Albus Dumbledore Remembered” and Rita Skeeter’s “Dumbledore—The Truth at Last?” The last book in the series also introduces the Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of stories that Harry and Hermione encounter for the first time and that Ron has already read many times, having grown up in a wizarding household. Interestingly, Ron’s experience of re-discovering these stories parallels that of real-world readers who find the Harry Potter books contain much more than they’d realized when they were younger. Throughout Deathly Hallows, all three characters re-read “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” and their analysis guides them as they weigh the search for horcurxes against the search for hallows. The tale also guides Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they assess the value of the three hallows. And astute readers will notice that re-reading the tale offers insight into the themes of the series.

The 2008 publication of the Tales of Beedle the Bard enables fans to emulate the characters as they read and re-read the tales. What’s more, there is a wickedly clever temporal dimension to this text-within-the-text: just as Rowling plants the vanishing cabinet long before Draco Malfoy needs it, she plants Tales of Beedle the Bard for readers to discover long before Dumbledore bequeaths the book to Hermione. When Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, no real person had ever read Tales of Beedle the Bard, but readers who come to that last book in the series now, may do so having already read the interpolated tales. For these readers, the first encounter with the tale in the final book of the series may already be an act of re-reading. Just as the third brother in “The Tale of the Three Brothers” greets Death as an old friend, readers great the tale as an old friend, as we do each book of the series.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is our oldest friend, one we’ve known for twenty years and by different names. It is a time-turner that carries us back to our younger selves, a pensieve that holds cherished memories, and a portkey that transports us to a magical home. It may not be for sale at Flourish and Blotts, but it is a magical book all the same, one that charms and transfigures us with each re-reading.

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Writing by Hand

Readers of The Rosemary Spell will recall that Rosemary draws frequently on the books she’s read, and most of these are books from the real world, such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. However, Rosemary’s favorite book is a fictional … Continue reading

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Crutch Words

I like to nod, then look at that, or so it seems.

Anyone who reads drafts of my writing–my agent, my editor, my critique partners–may know already the significance of that strange sentence. Even readers of this post who have never picked up one of my novels may detect the dull drag of filler. They may realize, as my go-to readers know with certainty, what the words ‘like,’ ‘nod,’ ‘look,’ ‘seem,’ ‘then,’ and ‘that’ have in common. These are the six words that I overuse.

We all have words we lean on when we write. The reasons we think we need them are varied, but most of the time, we don’t need them at all. Still, we lean on them so heavily they cause a metaphoric limp in our sentences. I think of them as crutch words.

My six words slow my writing down. They take up space and get between my reader and the story. Your crutch words likely do the same.

One of the final stages of revision for me is getting rid of as many instances of my crutch words as I can. To do this, I follow a four-step process:

1. I copy and paste my whole novel into a word frequency counter, like this one. This results in a count of all the words in the document, so I can see exactly how many times I use each word.

2. I review the list, making sure the most frequent words (aside from articles, pronouns, and conjunctions) are character names or key concepts. I make a sub-list of any words that I already know I have a habit of overusing, and I keep an eye out for any new crutch words.

3. I open my document in Word and use the ‘find’ command to search for each occurrence of each of those words.

4. I assess each use of each crutch word. I make the careful decision to leave some of them as is, but I take most of them out.

Taking them out is often a simple matter of deleting. Sometimes I can replace the overused word with one that does a better job of conveying my meaning. Sometimes I need to rewrite the sentence.

As I go through this process, I try to figure out why I overuse these particular words. If I can understand what leads me to lean on certain words, I can work to repair those weaknesses and eliminate the need to lean at all.

For instance, I use ‘like,’ as many of us do in speech, to hold whatever follows at arm’s length. I’m reluctant to say boldly, ‘This is the most beautiful snowfall I’ve ever seen,’ so I soften the statement with the addition of a filler word, ‘This is like the most beautiful snowfall…’ I’m sure you recognize the construction. Very occasionally, there is a place for this sort of syntactic hedging-of-bets in fiction, but in nearly every case, I remove ‘like’ and often revise to do a better job of owning whatever I’m saying.

I’ve also come to understand why I lean on ‘look’ and ‘seem.’ Both of these words articulate elements of a character’s viewpoint that should be implicit. I don’t need to say, ‘Adam looks at Shelby and sees she is worried.’ I can just say, ‘Adam sees Shelby is worried.’ Obviously, he’s looking at her.

Many of the words I overuse are essentially notes to myself that I failed to take out of the text. They are like illustrator notes. Maurice Sendak might have included the bracketed instruction [Max romps with the Wild Things,] but he didn’t need to keep that sentence in his text because the illustration successfully depicts what the sentence says. The same thing is true in a novel. [Adam looks] is me telling myself what’s happening, but if I’ve written what follows well, I will have successfully illustrated the action and don’t need to include the comment.

In the manuscript I most recently revised, I found that, though I still lean too heavily on ‘nod,’ a word that rarely does any good, I have significantly reduced my reliance on it. This small victory comes from being mindful of my crutch words and eliminating them as I go.

It may never be possible to discard the crutches altogether, but the four steps described above strengthen the gait of my sentences, making them strong enough to carry my readers along.

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A Tale of Two Agents

A very specialized sub-genre of blog post is the author’s story of how she got her agent. I never told my story, and then it turned out my story was still in process, so it’s a good thing I waited.

Let me say at the start that I desperately wanted to get an agent via the slush pile. I wanted this because I was disheartened by the many stories I read that included phrases like “my cousin’s friend” or “I was seated next to X at a wedding” or “after ten years at such-and-such publisher.” It seemed that nearly every account I read described an author finding an agent through a contact or a special circumstance. I wanted my story to offer hope to aspiring authors who don’t have contacts or special circumstances.

I queried and queried. I met agents at my regional SCBWI conference and had great conversations with them. I queried them afterwards. I was rejected and rejected and rejected. Or, rather, because so many agencies follow a no-response protocol, most of my queries were met with deafening silence. Sometimes I got requests for partials or fulls. Some of those requests were followed by encouraging rejections. Some languished with no response. This should all sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered into the query fray.

The unique part of my experience was that I had an offer from a foreign publisher, and I needed an agent to negotiate the contract. This was great, of course, but it was also highly unusual. Foreign rights are supposed to come after domestic publication, not before. In any case, I didn’t just want an agent; I needed an agent in order to negotiate this foreign contract. I grew increasingly desperate.

I decided that if most people got their agents through contacts, I needed to be creative in activating my networks. I attended Carleton College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota with fiercely loyal alumni, and I thought, “Surely, someone who went to Carleton is a literary agent.” I searched the alumni directory, and discovered George Nicholson, one of the most respected children’s agents in the business, graduated from Carleton.

I emailed him. It wasn’t exactly a query. It was more a request for guidance about the peculiar situation of the foreign contract. He responded within five minutes, inviting me to send him my manuscript. A couple of months later, I met George for lunch. It was the first of several conversations that would deepen my knowledge of the history and current state of children’s publishing. It ended with an offer of representation.

George negotiated the contract for La Finestra del Temps (Barcelona: Cruïlla 2012) and sought an American home for the book. Meanwhile, I wrote The Rosemary Spell. When it was ready, I sent it to George, and he immediately suggested setting the Catalan book aside and shifting our efforts to my new book. He sent it to Dinah Stevenson at Clarion Books. She loved it. We signed a contract.

And that’s the story I would have told if I’d gotten around to telling my agent story, but it turned out to be only the first part of the story.

In February 2015, just before I got to see the beautiful cover Clarion designed for The Rosemary Spell, George unexpectedly passed away. He touched so many lives and so many stories, and his death was a terrible loss for children’s publishing. My relationship with him was brief compared to those who had worked with him for thirty or forty years, and I feel privileged to have been taken under his wing even for a short time. It is an extra sadness to me that he never got to see The Rosemary Spell in its beautiful, finished form.

After George died, I held off on looking for a new agent, largely because I didn’t yet have a new manuscript that was ready to share. Time passed. I wrote. I revised. When the time was right, I began to send out queries.

I thought it would be different this time around. I am a published author. My debut novel has been well received—it got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. I have contacts in the industry.

Though my query letter was somewhat different, the process turned out to be much the same. My contacts were kind and generous with their time, but they did not lead me to offers of representation. It turns out there is no secret hand shake that allows published authors to bypass the query quagmire. I sent out queries. I got some requests for material, some rejections, and, as before, lots of silence. I was wrong to presume that my network and my special circumstances would lead me to an agent.

In the end, I rose up from the slush pile, just as I’d hoped to do at the start. A friend suggested Bridget Smith at Dunham Literary might be a good match for me, and when I looked her up, I agreed. But I didn’t have any special in. I just sent a query, following the agency guidelines. And I waited. She asked to see the full manuscript. I allowed myself to feel hopeful. Even before we spoke, the relationship felt promising.

And then we arranged a time to talk. The conversation was comfortable, productive, and inspiring, and it ended with her offering to represent me. I followed the protocol of contacting the other agents who were considering the manuscript, but I knew Bridget was the right match for me. It gave me great joy to accept her offer, and as I work with her comments on my manuscript, I can already see how she will help me to be a better writer.

So that’s my story.

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Marble House Project

I have spent the past two-and-a-half weeks at an artist’s residency in Dorset, Vermont. The Marble House Project is a truly amazing residency that offers eight artists of various kinds unlimited time to make art. Here with me are two other writers, two filmmakers, a visual artist, a singer-songwriter, and a dancer-choreographer. Being in this place with these people has honestly been a life-changing experience. I will reflect more deeply in a future post (coming soon, I promise), but for now, I’ll let a few pictures tell the story.

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Finding my David

It seems to me there are two ways to liken writing a story to making a sculpture: the story can be molded from a shapeless mass of clay or it can be hewn from a solid block of stone. Both similes are useful. Both reveal truths about the art of fiction. Perhaps one writer makes stories in both ways, any given story requiring a different craft.

I have spent some months picking my way through the early stages of a new book. This involves free writing and false starts, note taking and self-directed writing exercises, and lots and lots of thinking. Most writers move through these stages in one way or another.

For me, an important part of developing a story is paring away the bits that don’t belong. I often begin with an idea that’s too complicated, and I must peel layers away, until I arrive at the kernel of the story. I must find the sculpture in the block of stone.

I choose a rock. I see potential in it. I have lots of ideas about it, and I apply my chisel. Soon, a shape emerges. I’m excited. “Look!” I cry to my friends and family. “Look, it’s a story!” And it is, but it’s rough hewn and unbeautiful.

I sit and stare at the story-to-be, and I decide which bits of rock to polish, which to cut away. Again, I apply my chisel. The shape of the story grows more definite as I remove elements. I pare away a sub-plot. I carve off a character. “Ah, there it is,” I say.

But inevitably more work must be done. More rock must fall away before I find the true story, a small gem of a thing.

I like to think I will know the story when I see it. Like Michelangelo recognized David when he found him in the marble, I will recognize my story when it becomes a solid and well-wrought thing.

Yet, the truth is, I drafted this post two months ago. I thought then that I had found the David in my rock, yet here I am, still chipping away at the marble. I’ve learned that I must never put the chisel away.


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